The Tar Heels entered the game looking as good as they had all season but still were no match for the Blue Devils despite having the home court advantage. Duke shot 55.1% from the floor, while holding North Carolina to only 33.9% in an impressive 69-53 victory.
Mason Plumlee topped off what will most likely be an ACC player of the year season with a 23 point, and 13 rebound performance. Seth Curry also displayed why he is one of the conference’s best players, recording 20 points along with three rebounds and two assists.
The win puts a cherry on top of a dominating regular season for the Blue Devils, who have only lost four times all year, with all four coming on the road. All four losses also came without senior Ryan Kelly, and now that he’s returned to the lineup, Duke is looking like the juggernaut they appeared to be early in January before his injury.
The Blue Devils have managed to avenge any of their concerning losses by defeating the North Carolina State Wolfpack without even having Kelly in the line-up. They lost to the Wolfpack in their first full game without Kelly, but their superior team chemistry leaves little doubt as to who the better school is and they proved it in the rematch.
In Kelly’s first game back, Duke was able to avenge their embarrassing loss to the Miami (FL) Hurricanes on Jan. 23. When the Blue Devils lost 90-63 that night, many believed this was a completely different team with Kelly out of the lineup and they weren’t wrong. Kelly’s absence was significant both from an offensive and defensive stand-point as his ability to take pressure off of Plumlee’s defensive responsibilities, while taking pressure off the rest of his teammates to score is something that can’t be overstated.
Duke’s other two losses shouldn’t be thrown under the rug, but they aren’t necessarily overly concerning. Losing to the Maryland Terrapins 83-81 on Feb. 16 was a result of an exhausted Plumlee hitting the wall after competing at a high level all year long. Had Kelly participated in the contest, things would have gone differently.
The Virginia Cavaliers loss on Feb. 28 is also not that concerning as it was the typical trap game top teams run into as they look ahead to a bigger game. Duke was running through the motions, not respecting Virginia like they should have, as they were more focused on rebounding against Miami (FL) in the following contest. Still, the loss proves that an incredible scoring performance can defeat the Blue Devils, as Joe Harris finished with 36 points in the game. However, it’s hard to imagine Harris scoring such a number if Kelly’s defensive presence was also on the court to bother him, along with Plumlee.
Point is, with Kelly back, the Blue Devils have proven they are just as good as they were before his injury and before his injury they were the best team in the nation. After running through the rest of the competition in the conference, there’s no doubt a healthy Duke is the best team in the ACC.
This healthy Duke roster is easily the conference tournament favorites, and if they are able to capture the ACC Tournament, like many believe they will, the chances of them being NCAA Tournament favorites is as good as it was at the start of January.