DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke's 80-62 victory over Wake Forest was not the prettiest of the Blue Devils' wins this season, but it did serve as yet another learning session for the home team.
Through much of the first half Saturday afternoon, Duke found itself out of sync, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. Though the turnover number was not high, the Blue Devils seemingly could not hold onto the basketball.
Passes were off the mark, Duke's bigs could not establish position in the post and the pace appeared to be more frantic than under control. Luckily for the Blue Devils, senior forward Ryan Kelly came to play and was able to carry his team through the rough stretch and help it maintain a double digit advantage for much of the first period.
Thanks to Kelly's 17 first half points, Duke was able to survive being solely a jump shooting team during the first 20 minutes of action and go into the break leading 41-30. While that might not seem to be a big deal for some programs, Duke has established itself this season as an inside-out team, thus Saturday's effort was a bit out of character for this squad.
For the most part, Duke adjusted fairly well.
"Second half has been better the last couple games," Mason Plumlee said. "The first half was slow, but Ryan really pulled us through that first half and then we all showed up in the second half I thought."
Duke shot 16 first half 3-pointers, making nine of them compared to just 3-of-17 from inside the stripe. Oftentimes that can serve as a problem, and if Duke has to rely on that kind of play down the stretch the reliance of shots falling at a high rate could get them in trouble.
The Blue Devils' best player, Mason Plumlee, scored just two points on 1-of-3 shooting in the first half. Like Davidson, Wake Forest doubled Plumlee some, however, it was the Demon Deacons' physical approach that played a part in the Duke big man not finding a rhythm early.
With Kelly and Seth Curry, who added 14 points in the first half, shooting the ball well, Plumlee's inability to contribute in the points column did not prove to be a major issue. The question is - will it down the road if Duke cannot go through him?
"He passed [the ball] out really well today," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Plumlee. "We were 11 for 24 from three but it seemed like we could have hit about eight more. They were just wide open.
"[Mason] has to keep adjusting to [defenses]. I thought in the second half he played through physicality and I didn't think he did that in the first half. I think he let the double team dictate to him what he was going to do instead of at times dictating to that double team what he was going to do with it. In the second half he did that."
Krzyzewski believes Plumlee's response in the second half was evidence that he is making the necessary adjustments in order to make his presence felt.
Plumlee finished the game with 13 points and 12 rebounds. The result of his more aggressive and calculated play in the second half was an ability for his team to push the lead out even further from it's 11 point halftime advantage.
At one point in the second half, Duke was ahead by as many as 25 points. That advantage came with Kelly on the bench.
Kelly, who picked up his fourth foul with just over 16 minutes to go in the second half, came out of the halftime break picking up where he left off by scoring five quick points less than three minutes in to the final period.
Duke maintained its high level of play until the 9:39 mark when Wake Forest went on an 8-0 run to close the gap to 17 points. Though the offense had remained solid with Kelly on the bench, when things began falling apart to a degree for Duke, Krzyzewski was looking at his players wondering what was going through their heads.
"The game got kind of disjointed there - we got that 25 point lead and for two minutes it was like lala land or something," Krzyzewski added. "I didn't know what the heck was going on there for a while."
While Duke did take a step back during the final 10 minutes, the team as whole was playing much more together than it did to start things off. With Kelly on the bench for almost the entire second half, and not scoring another point after picking up his fourth foul, Duke was pleased with the response.
In addition to Plumlee's 11 second half points, Curry added 8 more while Rasheed Sulaimon scored 7 additional points. Curry joined Kelly as Duke's high scorer with 22 points of his own, while Sulaimon completed the game with 12 points.
Plumlee's ability to make things happen in the post helped take Duke from just four points in the paint during the first 20 minutes to 28 points in the paint by game's end.
According to Plumlee's teammates, his play helped carry them in to the victory with Kelly having to sit.
"They were just playing very physical and they were double teaming Mason a little bit," point guard Quinn Cook said. "Mason got it going in the second half and he was key to our push."
Despite Plumlee's play in the final half, it was still Kelly's performance that allowed Duke to leave this contest as the winner.
Wake Forest, a team that is highlighted by its youth, was simply outmatched and despite Duke's struggles in the first half the Deacons were never really in the game. The Deacons had no answer for Kelly, who scored from the perimeter and found ways to get to the basket.
Had the senior not been in foul trouble, there was a strong chance Saturday's performance would have gone down as one of his best as a Blue Devil.
His 22 points came off of 6-of-9 shooting format he floor, 5-of-7 from beyond the arc and 5-of-6 from the free throw line. He was every where. And for that, Krzyzewski believed Kelly was on pace to put up some monster numbers on the offensive end of the floor.
"He was on his way to a 35, 40 point game, really," Krzyzewski said of Kelly. "We would have obviously kept calling his number.
"I think Ryan has the ability to score 20 points against anybody. I think Ryan is really good. I do think that when you're trying to take Mason and Seth out of the game it opens it up a little bit more for Ryan."
In addition to Kelly's performance, Cook also made big plays for Duke. Despite going 0-of-11 from the field, Cook managed to leave an impact on the game by handing out 14 assists while turning it over only once in the contest.
Cook was also touted for his ball pressure that made it difficult for Wake Forest's guards to get the team into its offense.
His 14 assists were a career high and ultimately made Duke's jump shooting ways a success. Had Cook not been able to put the ball in good spots for his shooters, chances are the Blue Devils would not have shot 45.8 percent (11-of-24) from long range.
Deservedly so, Krzyzewski praised his point guard for the outstanding performance.
"Kind of a weird stat is Quinn's - he had 14 assists, one turnover but was 0-for-11 from the floor," Krzyzewski noted. "I was proud of him that he didn't let the shooting take away from his defense and playmaking responsibilities."
Duke's lesson from this contest is it can win without running through the post. However, the Devils were reminded that their bread and butter is working through Plumlee on offense and playing aggressive defense.
How the team implements the lessons going forward will determine a lot about how well it performs in league play going forward.
The victory pushed Duke's overall record to 14-0 and 1-0 in ACC action. The Blue Devils return to the floor on Jan. 8 when they host Clemson.