TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As Mike Krzyzewski walked off the floor Thursday, he allowed himself the tiniest moment of celebration. The Duke coach punctuated his team's 74-66 win at Florida State with a low, tight-to-the-body fist pump.
"I'm proud of my guys," Krzyzewski said, explaining the moment. Then he corrected himself.
"I'm proud of my men," he said. "They were men tonight. They played a man's team."
Since Florida State joined the ACC in 1991-92, most Duke wins against the Seminoles have been business-as-usual affairs that merited no jubilation. This one was different. Not only because the Blue Devils avenged a buzzer-beater loss to the Seminoles in Durham on Jan. 21. Not only because it restored order in the league by making the conference title race a Duke-North Carolina affair again. This one meant more to Krzyzewski for two reasons: 1) This Florida State team is close to Duke and North Carolina's level in terms of raw talent and 2) The win provided a measuring stick for how much the Blue Devils have grown in 18 days since they lost an overtime head-scratcher to Miami in Durham.
Remember all those questions about whether freshman guard Austin Rivers could make his teammates better? He certainly looked like he could when he found Miles Plumlee (10 points on 5-of-6 shooting) for the reverse layup that finally put the game beyond the reach of the pesky Seminoles. All night, Rivers' slashing drives into the lane forced Florida State to sag, leaving open one of Duke's long-range marksmen. The major beneficiary was Andre Dawkins, who scored 18 of his 21 points during a first-half barrage that forced the Seminoles to "dig out of a ditch," in the parlance of FSU coach Leonard Hamilton.
"Where Austin is at is a completely different place than he was a month ago," Krzyzewski said. "Austin played a great basketball game tonight. He looked like a senior out there."
Rivers' improvement has turned Duke from a good team with a puncher's chance to compete for the national title to a likely No. 1 seed. That's probably why Krzyzewski buzzed across the court Thursday as Rivers writhed on the floor following a nasty spill that ended with his right shin clanging off the corner of a board on the side of the court. This wouldn't be a Kyrie Irving situation, though. Rivers' injury looked -- and sounded -- worse than it was. He rose after a minute of agony and made his way back to the court soon after.
Duke led by as many as 13 in the second half, but the Seminoles wouldn't quit in what had been billed as the biggest basketball game in Tallahassee in more than 20 years. FSU's Xavier Gibson hit a layup to cut the lead to 58-55 with 5:21 remaining, and Duke's Ryan Kelly responded with a three-pointer. Seminoles forward Bernard James answered that shot with a three-point play that made it 61-58. On Duke's next trip down the court, the ball went inside to Kelly, who kicked it to Seth Curry for the three-pointer that gave the Blue Devils room to breathe.
"I don't think Florida State fans will think it was as good as the game in Durham," Krzyzewski said, "but I think it was played at a higher level."
That's why James slumped in his chair late Thursday as he tried to explain the loss. Florida State is capable of playing at Duke's level, but the Seminoles didn't do the little things that would have allowed them to win. This team has moved far past moral victories. These Seminoles wanted to prove the rest of the ACC wasn't playing for third place behind Duke and North Carolina. They had the inside track on the ACC title in their grasp Thursday, and they let it slip away a little more every time perimeter defenders squeezed inside to help -- leaving Duke's shooters open to bury 13 of 28 three-point attempts.
"We didn't do a good job of adjusting to what they do," James said. "They've got three NBA-caliber three-point shooters. We helped in. Every time they drove the ball, we helped in. And they weren't particularly hurting us inside."
This type of adjustment isn't easy to make because it requires ignoring the instinct to help closer to the basket, but elite teams make it. Players are drilled most of their lives that a player with the ball near the basket is more dangerous than one farther away. But against a team like Duke, the man on the block might be the decoy trying to free up space for a shooter.
"They played us like an instrument," James said. "They sucked us in and then kicked out. The guys were hitting, and they knocked them down. We've got to be more conscious of what's going on and what's hurting us and make those adjustments -- not helping in, making them finish over top of our bigs with layups. Two points doesn't hurt quite as bad as three."
As team deficiencies go, this is not major. A few quality film studies and practice sessions can correct it. That's what made the loss so frustrating for the Seminoles. They have the talent to beat Duke, but they made a few critical mental errors. And that's what made the win so satisfying for Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils. Against what they consider an elite opponent, they made the correct decisions when they absolutely needed to.
"This year, they've got a little bit more magic," Krzyzewski said of Florida State. "There's just something about them together. That's why we feel so good about the win. We beat a really good basketball team."