With rival North Carolina leading by four points Wednesday night and Duke’s best defender sidelined, coach Mike Krzyzewski made a strategic change that helped the Blue Devils recover and win.
Krzyzewski brought Andre Dawkins off the bench to give Duke a three-guard lineup and moved Kyle Singler from small forward to power forward. That opened the lane for the decisive moments in a 64-54 Duke win at the Smith Center.
It was a bittersweet win for the Blue Devils because of the right knee injury to senior forward Lance Thomas that helped lead to the decisive lineup change. Krzyzewski said Thomas doesn’t have a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but said the injury is serious and expects to know more about its severity today.
“It’s not a minor injury,” Krzyzewski said solemnly.
With Thomas out and North Carolina’s Ed Davis and John Henson dominating the post defensively with their shot blocking, the Tar Heels led 42-38 after a Dexter Strickland layup with 11 minutes, 53 seconds remaining.
That’s when Krzyzewski called timeout and made his lineup change. Although the scores came slowly after that in a bitterly contested defensive game, Duke scored 22 of the next 30 points.
Opening up the lane allowed freshman forward Mason Plumlee to grab three offensive rebounds that led directly or indirectly to two Duke field goals and one free throw. When Plumlee rebounded a Singler miss and hammered home a reverse dunk with 7:40 remaining, he gave Duke the lead for good at 47-45.
“You put four shooters on the court, and then I thought having Mason on the court, we were able to make that happen,” said Duke guard Jon Scheyer, who led all scorers with 24 points. “Offensively he had that one putback. He had the dunk over his head. We were able to spread the floor because we had something inside.”
Singler added 19 points to help the Blue Devils end a streak in the series of three straight losses and six defeats in the last seven tries against rival North Carolina.
Duke (20-4, 8-2 ACC) maintained its hold on first place in the ACC, two games ahead of Maryland in the win column. The Terrapins (16-6, 6-2) visit Cameron Indoor Stadium for a key conference game Saturday.
North Carolina (13-11, 2-7) struggled on offense and was led by Will Graves’ 13 points in its seventh loss in the last eight games. But the Tar Heels – urged by coach Roy Williams earlier in the week to never give up – played ferocious defense in the lane.
“I thought guys came in with a lot of intensity and a lot of focus from the get go,” said North Carolina point guard Larry Drew. “Like Coach said, the last seven or eight minutes we kind of lost it.”
In the first half, Henson had four of his six blocked shots and Davis blocked three more as the Blue Devils shot just 3-for-28 from two-point range. With Duke relying almost entirely on 3-point shots (6-for-12) in the first half and usually high-scoring guard Nolan Smith struggling, the Tar Heels kept it close.
A Drew three-point play with 2.8 seconds remaining in the half cut Duke’s lead to 28-27 at halftime. The lead changed hands nine times in the opening eight minutes of the second half, and Thomas and Drew both were hurt when it appeared their knees collided on a play under the basket.
Drew was just a bit sore. Thomas went to the ground holding his right knee and had to be carried off to the locker room with 17:20 remaining.
After North Carolina took a 42-38 lead with its big players clogging the lane and Thomas out, Krzyzewski tried his new strategy. Duke scored the next six points as Singler was freed up for more movement and surprised Henson with a quick move to the basket to score immediately after the timeout.
“They’re a lot tougher to guard when they’re moving around,” Henson said.
And they might have to continue to play that way – at least in stretches – if Thomas’ injury keeps him out for a long time. The injury cuts Duke’s regular post rotation from four players to three.
“Andre gave us good minutes,” Krzyzewski said. “. . .If Lance is out, it’s probably one of the looks we’ll have, with Kyle at the four.”