After a hot start, Duke got reality checks from two different sources — Mike Krzyzewski and then Robert Morris.
Yes, it ended up being a 85-56 victory for the Blue Devils, the No. 1 seed in the South, over the 16th-seeded Colonials. And 10 minutes into the game, it looked like it would be a nondescript blowout. And it stayed that way until the 15:21 mark of the second half, when Jahlil Okafor decided to get fancy, driving to the wide-open basket, going for the reverse, two-handed dunk over his head — and missing.
Instantly, Krzyzewski jumped up from his seat on the bench and gestured for Marshall Plumlee to enter the game. Less than a minute later, Krzyzewski called a timeout to make the substitution happen.
The timeout huddle that ensued included many words not fit to print in this family publication, but rest assured that Krzyzewski wasn’t pleased with his team losing focus and discipline, up 54-34. And then, with Okafor benched, Robert Morris went on a 10-0 run, momentarily renewing the hope of another massive March upset.
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But just as suddenly as Duke had lost its mojo, Justise Winslow single-handedly summoned it back. It was as if the talented freshman had snapped awake from a slumber, realized what was happening and decided enough was enough.
Coming out of the under-12 media timeout, Winslow hit a 3 to give Duke a 59-46 lead. On the next possession, he collected a defensive rebound and drove it down the length of the floor for a transition layup. Then he did it again, grabbing the ball off the defensive glass and taking it down the floor, finding Tyus Jones open in the corner for a 3. The rest of his teammates joined in — Okafor finished inside and Marshall Plumlee threw a 3/4-court outlet pass that resulted in an Amile Jefferson lay-up, and, just like that, it was a comfortable Duke lead again, 68-46, just three minutes and 15 seconds later.
Winslow has been a bellwether for Duke this year — when he is engaged, the team its near its zenith, tempting fans to book tickets to Indianapolis right that instant. And when Winslow is either hurt (see the N.C. State and Miami games) or not quite focused, that’s when the Blue Devils start to slip.
If the Blue Devils needed a reminder that they are, in fact, mortal, and not predestined to wind up in the Final Four, they got it Friday night. There was no repeat of the loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinal, no sleepwalking through the first half — on the contrary, Duke went into the locker room up 42-25. And, thanks to the reboot in the second half, there would be no early exit, as some Duke teams had fallen victim to in years past — the video board in Time Warner Cable arena actually showed highlights from Mercer’s win over Duke last year, in case anyone had forgotten about it.
No, in the end there would be a dominant, lopsided Duke win — just as most everyone expected, even if it wasn’t smooth sailing for all 40 minutes.