DURHAM, N.C. -- When assessing a team's national championship chances, it's never wise to dwell too much on its last game. Researchers with
But can we make an exception for what just happened at Cameron Indoor Stadium? For changing our minds about Duke between Thursday's ugly loss to Virginia and Saturday's 79-76 win over No. 5 Miami? For wanting to revise the Blue Devils' diagnosis from "slumping at the wrong time" to "completely revitalized contender"? Because in this case, the title race really was altered in the course of one game, by the return of one player, who reminded everyone why Duke was regarded as the nation's No. 1 team before he suffered a right foot injury on Jan. 8.
Senior forward Ryan Kelly came back on Saturday for the Blue Devils' thrilling win over the Hurricanes. Not only came back, but started, and not only started, but played 32 minutes. Not only contributed, but put up a career-high 36 points and a team-high seven rebounds, and was the reason Duke avenged the humiliating, 27-point loss it suffered to the Hurricanes on Jan. 23, with Kelly sidelined. He not only stunned Miami but also his own teammates -- who had seen him participate in a fraction of just one practice -- and his coach, who could only say, "How did that happen? I don't know how the hell that happened. But it did, and we won, and God Bless America."
Mike Krzyzewski was so giddily flustered that he dropped a random Olympic reference into his postgame remarks. He called Kelly's performance "one for the ages," and perhaps Coach K had not seen such an offensive show since his summer run with the Dream Team in London. Certainly no recent Duke player had done anything like it. Kelly's 36 points were the most by a Blue Devil in an ACC game since J.J. Redick dropped 40 on Virginia in January 2006. The 2012-2013 Blue Devils were just two days removed from the putrid loss in Charlottesville, one in which their star center, Mason Plumlee, said he "couldn't touch the ball without seeing a double team." Kelly's return on Saturday provided sweet relief: He was the ultimate floor-spreader, burning Miami defender Kenny Kadji nearly every time he sagged down towards the paint, making seven of his nine three-point attempts.
What Kelly does for Duke as it approaches the ACC and NCAA tournaments, Plumlee said, "is give us a higher ceiling. I think we could have been good, we could have made a run. But with Ryan, we were playing as well as anybody in the country before he went down."
There was a time, early in the rehab process, where Kelly wasn't sure he'd make it back. Where he worried that his senior season would end the same way his junior year did, with him watching the NCAA tournament injured from the bench. But there were rumors in mid-February that Kelly was making progress, and after he participated in a shootaround at Virginia on Thursday, he tried -- but failed -- to convince Krzyzewski to let him play for the first time in 13 games.
It wasn't until 7:30 p.m. Friday, during a walkthrough of their plays for the Miami game, that Krzyzewski made an announcement. "We didn't know if [Kelly] was going to play," senior guard Seth Curry recalls. "Coach said it real nonchalant: 'Ryan's going to start.' We were just like, 'Let's go.'"
According to Curry, Kelly ran through "maybe five plays, and made a few shots." There were no signs that Kelly was on the verge of a monster game. He wondered if his conditioning good enough to play extended minutes in a clash of top-five teams, admitting, "I'm not in unbelievable shape."
By late Friday night, Miami's coaches had heard enough chatter about a potential Kelly return that they spent time during Saturday morning's shootaround talking about how to defend him. He did not appear in Duke's early warmups, but at 5:34 p.m., he took the court with the team. By 5:35 p.m., the Cameron Crazies had started their first
To get Kelly into the flow of the offense, the Blue Devils ran their first play for him, creating an open three-point look from the right side. He front-rimmed his first in-game jumper in 53 days.
"It was my first shot," Kelly said. "I didn't mind missing it."
None of his teammates minded what came next. Kelly didn't just get into the flow of the offense, he
"I thought we prepared for Ryan Kelly," Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga said, "but obviously not for that Ryan Kelly. He was sensational."
Kelly's outburst was so improbable -- his career high to that point had been 23 -- that it seemed likely he would fade in the second half. Surely he would get tired, or cold, or Miami's defense, which entered the game ranked ninth in adjusted efficiency, wouldn't keep losing track of him on the outside. But none of that happened. He added 16 more points, including the go-ahead three with 9:13 left that gave Duke a lead, at 58-56, that it would hold for the rest of the game.
During a stoppage in the final minutes one of the Crazies within earshot of press row remarked of Kelly, "I think he's earned his starting spot back."
And as if Kelly hadn't done enough, when Miami made a last-ditch comeback, cutting a 10-point deficit to just two in the final minute, his steal with 38 seconds left helped swing momentum back in Duke's favor. When Rion Brown's three-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer, the Blue Devils pulled out a three-point win and remained in the running for a share of the ACC regular-season title.
After the game, reporters mobbed Kelly around his locker, and he was asked, among other things, about the state of his foot. He wouldn't reveal what his injury actually was ("nobody's told anybody about that") but did say it felt pretty good. A shank in his right shoe had helped minimize movement and limit pain. His only problem had been a small blister. "Your first time back playing," he said, "it happens."
The rest of what happened, in his first time back playing, was not so easy to explain.