The talk leading up to Tuesday night’s clash between the Duke Blue Devils and Kentucky Wildcats in the second installment of the Champions Classic was a highly debated topic regarding experience versus youth. As the final buzzer sounded at the end of a thrilling game, it became clear for now, that you can never take for granted how much veteran leadership can make a difference in the “one and done” era.
In front of an electric crowd of 22,847 at the Georgia Dome, the veteran-led Blue Devils, behind a game-high 23 points from senior Seth Curry, knocked off the third ranked Wildcats 75-68 in the first meeting between the two illustrious programs in 11 years. The game was back-and-forth up until the Blue Devils (2-0) began to open it up in their favor midway through the second half. With senior Mason Plumlee on the bench due to foul trouble, Duke went on a 13-3 run capped off by a three-point basket from freshman Rasheed Sulaimon to make it 58-44, the largest lead between both squads, with 9 1/2 minutes remaining.
However, the young, vibrant Wildcats (1-1) would not wilt so easily. The defending national champions began to rapidly chip away at the 14-point deficit, outscoring Duke 17-6 to make it a 64-61 game. With a chance to tie, senior Julius Mays missed a three-point attempt. It was the last opportunity that Kentucky would have, as the Blue Devils would eventually go on and clinch the victory.
“We were composed. We’d been in that situation before,” Curry said post-game. “That’s what we worked on during the preseason — taking control of the team, having it be our team. I had it going, so they came to me.”
Along with fellow seniors Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, the senior-led trio combined for 51 of the 75 Duke points. Plumlee’s play on the offensive end was outstanding as he finished with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting in only 29 minutes of action. Adding 10 points, Kelly’s main contribution came on the defensive end as he held Kentucky sophomore Kyle Wiltjer to just five points with only five attempted field goals.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski praised his team for their performance, as well as the Wildcats new faces.
“Veterans and talent,” Krzyzewski said. “Now, I wouldn’t mind having some of their guys. And I’m sure they would like to have some of our guys. They’re going to keep getting better.”
Kentucky’s heralded freshmen class was led by Alex Poythress who scored a team-high 20 points, while Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin added 16 points a piece.
“We’re still trying to figure out our team,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after Tuesday’s game. “This is all new to this team. We don’t play hard enough yet. We don’t compete on every possession yet. We don’t go after every rebound yet. We don’t know how to finish off games yet.
The rebounding battle was a crucial key to this game, after Duke was outrebounded by Georgia State 31-33 and Kentucky was dominated on the glass by Maryland 38-54 — including allowing 28 offensive rebounds — in their season openers. The Blue Devils were capable of edging out the Wildcats on the boards, 31-30, led by Sulaimon with a team-high six to go along with his 10 points and five assists.
With the victory, Duke has now won seven of the past eight games while Coach K improves to 5-1 all-time against the Wildcats. The Blue Devils also remain as the lone undefeated team in the Champions Classic at 2-0.
By Chad Lykins