On the surface, it looks like a vintage Duke team. More than 20 wins, ranked No. 5, tied for the lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and even a buzzer-beating basket to win at North Carolina.
But it is different this year for the Blue Devils (22-4, 9-2), who will come to Conte Forum this evening to play Boston College. Duke’s two conference losses came at home to Miami and Florida State. Austin Rivers’s winning 3-pointer was the highlight to the win over North Carolina, but the Blue Devils also had to overcome a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes. That would have been enough of a highlight by itself were it not for Thursday’s remarkable 78-73 win against North Carolina State, in which the Blue Devils were down by 20 points with 11:33 left.
The Blue Devils’ resilience doesn’t bode well for BC (8-18, 3-9), which has lost eight of its last nine, including an 81-65 defeat at Maryland Thursday night.
Even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was a little stunned by what his team showed in the final 11 minutes against N.C. State.
“That was an amazing win,’’ said Krzyzewski. “They thoroughly outplayed us for about 29 minutes and then we thoroughly outplayed them for 11. They were really good and we were great in the last 11 minutes. It was really one of the more amazing games I’ve been a part of.’’
Duke has not made it easy on Coach K’s nerves this season, forging comeback wins and going to the final buzzer in several games. Yet Krzyzewski said he is not concerned with the way a team achieves its goals, as long as it reaches them.
“Whatever string of things happened, we are 22-4,’’ he said. “We’ve been in the top five of the RPI all year. We’re not a perfect team, but we’re a good team. And we’re a team that has fought and instead of talking about inconsistencies and all of that, we’re 22-4 and we have some kids that really fought their butts off and gave us one of the incredible wins.’’
The end of February is a tough grind for some teams, especially those who have basically been going since July, when the Blue Devils took a trip to China and Dubai.
“Some teams hit a wall,’’ said Krzyzewski. “Overall, we have kept fairly fresh. We haven’t hit a wall. We may have run into it, but we find some door that opens and figure out a way to get in. Hopefully, we can get our team fresh before March.’’
One of the walls Duke will face today is the status of guard Seth Curry, who twisted his left ankle early in the first half against N.C. State. But Duke has answers for almost every problem.
Rivers had his highlight moment with the last-second shot to beat North Carolina, much to the delight of his father, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who was at the Dean Dome watching the game. The freshman guard is the latest in a line of Duke heroes who have blossomed during the course of the season.
“The kid’s got a special quality,’’ said Krzyzewski, who watched Rivers and Curry lead the comeback against N.C. State. “He wants to be in the moments and we’re going to put him in those situations and sink or swim. We’re swimming right now but he deserves to have the ball then. He and Seth just needed to get the ball. There was some great basketball there, it’s not like they were easy shots, and they really had to fight through it. It was an incredible win.’’
Rivers doesn’t shy away from the pressure.
“When we made that run I could feel it,’’ he said. “I felt confident. I love those games. I love those situations. It’s a tie game, two minutes left - that’s what you play basketball for, and I think that’s what a lot of guys on our team love to do, and I think that’s why we won this game.’’
This evening, Duke will be going after another win - incredible or not - and BC will be doing its best to stop the surge that always comes with playing Duke.