DURHAM—With a sprinting one-handed dunk, Duke guard Nolan Smith added the exclamation point to the Blue Devils’ 80-71 victory over the St. John’s Red Storm Saturday afternoon as the last minute ticked off the clock. For the first few minutes, though, memories of Duke’s Wednesday loss to Wisconsin dominated: St. John’ jumped to an early lead, and nine first half points from Storm forward Brian Coker, who entered the game when St. John’s starter Justin Burrell sprained his ankle after making the first basket, kept it close for much of the first half. But just six minutes in, Duke took the lead for the second and final time on its way to a 7-1 record.
Duke’s overall approach Saturday—allow Schmingler (a term invented here) to score the bulk of the points (Singler, Smith and Scheyer combined for 48 of the team’s 80) while depending on a three-to-five big man rotation inside—wasn’t surprising. But the details were: Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas, who didn’t start for the first time this season, delivered two of their most assured performances of this early season. Both players scored 11 points, while Thomas grabbed eight boards to Zoubek’s seven. Zoubek—derided more by Duke fans more than any other player, at least in the rush-to-judgment student section—even served as a motivational force, pumping his arms and yelling into the bleachers after he converted a pair of free throws in the second half. He scooped up several loose balls, too, and allowed less bobbles down low than he generally does.
Thomas’ defensive versatility was essential for Duke against an athletic St. John’s team that boasts quick guards and a crew of strong interior players. Thomas looked good close to the perimeter offensively, too, as he swished a pair of 15-foot jumpers. What’s more, forward Kyle Singler—listed at the same height as Thomas—hit a jumper while posting up in the second half. That shot was the perfect jolt during a crucial juncture in the game, as St. John’s had cut a 16-point lead to four. That narrow margin sparked a 14-4 run by the Devils, led by Schmingler's tripartite shooting.
The bad news for Duke, though, was the performance of the Plumlees, brothers Mason and Miles. For the first time, Coach Mike Krzyzewski was able to do what he said he hoped to do in the preseason, which was to start the six-foot, ten-inch forwards together. Offensively, they both struggled against Wisconsin, and Mason looked exactly like a player who’d missed the early runaway victories—unsure of his place and shot. Saturday afternoon’s game didn’t treat them much better, as they combined for six points and six rebounds in 16 minutes. In the locker room, Miles’ general affability gave way to one-word answers, while Mason deflected questions about whether or not the wrist he broke weeks ago was really ready for action.
The Plumlees will have some time to think about it: Duke doesn’t play again until Tuesday, Dec. 15, when they host Gardner-Webb—who played well against UNC-Chapel Hill in the Dean Dome earlier this year. Krzyzewski indicated it was time for a break, anyway.
“I think we are a little bit mentally and physically tired right now,” he said, noting the tough loss to Wisconsin Wednesday night and the team’s 4 a.m. arrival in Durham Thursday morning. “We would play great. Then there would be a stop in play with a timeout called or a television timeout, then we didn’t execute it as well. To me, that shows that we are a little mentally tired.”
Singler, for instance, was just 3 of 15 from the floor before he went on a nine-point, five-minute roar in the second half. At least beating a team that your coach thinks is the most athletic squad you’ve played all year, then, especially after besting the always ultra-physical Connecticut Huskies, must be a worthwhile reward.