Mason Plumlee spent much of the second half in an unfamiliar spot on the court: Mike Krzyzewski's bench.
The Blue Devils were marred by foul trouble after Plumlee and Ryan Kelly each picked up their fourth fouls with more than 12 minutes to go in the game. However, a strong defensive performance by Duke was enough to advance to the Sweet 16, beating Creighton 66-50.
"I just told myself, 'I have a supernatural favor with God,'" said Plumlee, who had 10 points and five rebounds in 27 minutes. "I said 'my career is not gonna end in foul trouble on the bench.''"
With the senior frontcourt duo of Plumlee and Kelly limited, it was juniors Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton, along with freshman Amile Jefferson, who stepped up and took over the role of keeping back-to-back first team All-American Doug McDermott and the rest of Creighton's potent offense in check.
"We got in incredible foul trouble," Krzyzewski said. "Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson really stepped up, and Tyler Thornton defensively. My kids played hard and really well together."
"It was great to see guys like Josh and Amile," Kelly said. "We had a lot of big fouls there and they stepped up and made huge plays. They rebounded the ball, they did a great job defensively. And we need that. Things like that happen."
Duke (29-5) held Creighton (28-8), a squad that features the second leading scorer in the nation and averaged over 74 points per game as a team during the regular season, to a season low 50 points. The Bluejays shot just 30 percent from the floor, including 10.5 percent from three-point range (2-of-19), vastly below their regular season numbers of 50 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three.
Plumlee said that, in regards to how well Duke defended, the outcome of the game speaks for itself.
"Statistically, we did a very good job," Plumlee said. "Defending the three was huge."
Creighton put up quite a battle on the defensive end, as well. The Bluejays held Kelly and Quinn Cook to a combined eight points on 2-of-13 shooting. Seth Curry scored 17 points, but it wasn't easy. Coming off his 26-point performance in the second round win over Albany, Curry shot 5-of-15 from the floor, including just 2-of-9 from beyond the arc.
"It was just so difficult to score," Krzyzewski said. "It was the best defense we've played [against] all year. It was just tough to get buckets."
While Kelly has struggled thus far offensively in the tournament, his defensive presence helped secure Duke's win over Creighton. It was Kelly who was primarily responsible for covering McDermott, a task he excelled at before succumbing to foul trouble midway through the second half. McDermott scored 21 points on 4-of-16 shooting, a lackluster performance for someone who has shot better than 50 percent in each of his three collegiate seasons.
"[McDermott] is a hell of a player," Kelly said. "He scores in a variety of ways. I think overall we did a pretty good job.
"It was a hard fought, physical [game]. Our defense stepped up to the challenge and that's great to be doing that at this time in the year."
Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon sparked the Blue Devils offensively, scoring 21 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 from three and 8-of-10 from the foul line. With Curry unable to find his stroke at times and Plumlee limited due to foul trouble, it was Sulaimon who stepped up and delivered the biggest performance of his brief career.
"The coaches always tell me to just stay aggressive and to look for my openings when they're there," Sulaimon said. "[They tell me] not to force anything but just to make reads and, if I have the shot, to take it with confidence. We all have confidence in each other and all of our abilities and they just want me to continue playing my game."
As Hairston, Jefferson and Thornton did their parts in filling in on the defensive end, Plumlee and Kelly acknowledged that Sulaimon came up clutch for Duke on the offensive side.
"[Sulaimon] is capable of that," Plumlee said. "When he's playing well and playing aggressive, he gives our perimeter another dimension. He's really our best penetrator."
"It's no surprise to me," Kelly said. "He's played great games throughout this year. It's unbelievable as a freshman to respond how he has. On a huge stage, he played a great game."
Although the Blue Devils haven't exactly lit the world on fire in their second and third round wins of the tournament, they've earned a trip to the Sweet 16 to take on Tom Izzo and Michigan State in Indianapolis.
"Oh yeah, I know they're good," Plumlee said. "We've played them a couple of times since I've been here. It'll be a battle."