PHILADELPHIA — Quinn Cook’s missed jumper was more or less the starter’s pistol.
As soon as it came off the rim, Duke’s Seth Curry and Albany’s Jacob Iati were thinking the same thing.
“That loose ball was probably the biggest play of the game,” Iati said.
For a 15-seed facing the second-seeded Blue Devils, hustle plays were keeping the Great Danes alive.
They chased down 50/50 balls, mouths foaming, and turned them into 3-pointers that kept Duke from turning their NCAA Tournament opener on Friday afternoon into a garden-variety runaway.
Every possession felt like a fistfight. With four minutes left, his team up just 8 points, and the ball up for grabs, Curry felt it.
“I was trying to be alert,” he said. “I was trying to get to it first.”
Iati had it in his crosshairs, he thought it was his.
So did Albany’s coach, Will Brown. He already was thinking about a fast break the other way.
“We’re off to the races,” Brown said. “I thought we had numbers.”
The tallest player on the floor, Duke’s 6-foot-10-inch Mason Plumlee, got just enough of a hand on it to tip it away.
“It ricocheted off me,” Iati said.
Straight to Curry.
The layup Curry got was the reward for everything else coming the hard way.
“In close games, especially the tournament, those are the types of things that win or lose you games,” Curry said.
At no point in their 73-61 win did the Blue Devils trail. They led by as many as 16 midway through the second half. They shot nearly 59 percent. But they had to fight off the Great Danes, who refused to take the hint.
“Albany played like a team that just won a championship and had 24 wins,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The talent gap between the teams went without saying.
“Jacob Iati is going to work at JPMorgan next year and Mason Plumlee is going to the NBA,” Brown said. “It’s like that at almost every position.”
The gap in conferences was also clear. For the first time in the history of the America East, five teams were playing in the postseason, including the NIT, CBI, and CIT. Duke was one of four Atlantic Coast Conference teams that reached the NCAA Tournament, representing a down year.
“They play in big games all season long and their whole careers every game is like that for them,” Iati said. “For us, it’s like the game of a lifetime. For them, it’s just another day in the park.”
Albany’s plan was to make it a long day. Led by their pocket-sized guard, Iati (15 points, including three 3-pointers), the Great Danes (24-11) drilled 9 of 15 from beyond the arc, got to the line and hit (14 of 16), gang rebounded (26 to Duke’s 28), and found ways to linger.
“The whole game we kept saying, every media timeout, just hang around, we’ll make a run,” Iati said. “We just wanted to hang around and hopefully they would make some mistakes and we could attack them.”
But Duke (28-5) limited its mistakes.
Cook had 11 assists and only one turnover. Plumlee scored 23 points and missed only two of 11 shots, leisurely catching lobs and throwing them through the rim two-handed. Curry (26 points) was particularly surgical, going 10 of 14 from the floor, knocking down both 3-point attempts.
Between Curry outside and Plumlee inside, “You have to pick your poison,” said Brown.
Tongue in cheek, he added, “We held those guys to 49 points. I think that’s a good job.”
When he was preparing, however, Brown didn’t expect the skyhook to be Plumlee’s weapon of choice.
“Plumlee did the best Kareem Abdul-Jabbar imitation I’ve seen in a long time,” Brown said. “He hit three skyhooks. I haven’t seen somebody attempt that shot in my 12 years at Albany, and he hit three of them.”
It also was probably hard to find film of Curry banking in a three, the way he did to give Duke a 50-36 lead.
Looking back, Duke delivered daggers all over. The fallaway jumper that Cook nailed with the shot clock winding down (“ridiculous,” by Brown’s description) made it 60-45 with 8:10 left, and from there Albany was down to two options: scratch and claw.
The brutal truth was that an America East team, no matter how resilient, can’t fall in a hole to an ACC team in a tournament game, Brown said.
“The problem is if you’re playing another low-major or mid-major Division 1 program, you can probably get away with getting behind and coming back,” Brown said. “When you play an elite program, a team that’s going to compete for a national title this year, you can’t afford to get behind by 12, 13, 14 points.”
If he had his choice, Krzyzewski said, he would have preferred the kind of opener Syracuse got on Thursday night, when they it rolled over Montana, 81-34, especially after last year’s tournament, when the Blue Devils were stunned by 15th-seeded Lehigh.
“Then I wouldn’t have to get as worked up,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m getting to be an old guy, and you don’t have as much energy as you used to.”
But for 40 minutes, Albany did everything to work the Blue Devils’ nerves.
“I can sit here comfortably and say we challenged Duke,” Brown said. “We made them work. We made Duke beat us.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.