DURHAM, N.C. _ With two of its three big guns from last season now playing professionally, defense was said to be the saving grace of the Ohio State men’s basketball team this season, the constant that carried the Buckeyes through games when they might not be able to throw it in the ocean from the beach.
But the defense was not there when they needed it last night in a game that was theirs for the taking in a venue where visitors almost never win.
Second-ranked Duke shot 58.1 percent from the field and had only two turnovers in the second half to rally for a 73-68 victory over No.4 Ohio State in Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Blue Devils’ win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge extended their home winning streak over nonconference opponents to 97 games dating to 2000.
Senior Mason Plumlee had 21 points and 17 rebounds, and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon scored all 17 of his points in the second half, as Duke (7-0) gave the Atlantic Coast Conference a split of the 12-game Challenge.
“They’ve got great players,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said, “and this came down to (the fact) they stepped up and made the big shots for them.”
The Buckeyes did not.
Deshaun Thomas scored 16 points, eight under his average, to lead Ohio State (4-1), which had its four-game winning streak in the Challenge ended. But guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith missed 20 of 27 shots from the field, and Shannon Scott missed seven of eight. Craft and Smith scored 11 points apiece.
“We had our opportunities,” Matta said. “We had some great looks at the basket and the shots weren’t going down.”
Ohio State shot 33.8 percent from the field and had only six assists. It had only three field goals in the last 6 1/2 minutes, and two came in the final 10 seconds.
“In a game like this, you’ve got to make some big plays down the stretch,” Matta said, “and unfortunately, we weren’t able to to it.”
Duke, which trailed the final 14:16 of the first half, cut an eight-point halftime deficit to three in the first 5 1/2 minutes of the second on the strength of two alley-oop slam dunks in transition by the 6-foot-10 Plumlee, who beat the Buckeyes downcourt in transition.
That ignited the “Cameron Crazies” cramming the student section along one sideline, and it became a test of wills that the home team slowly bent in its favor. The margin between the teams dwindled until the Blue Devils finally drew even at 53 on a three-point basket by Ryan Kelly with 6:12 to play. Kelly finished with 15 points.
Another three by Kelly 31 seconds later, after Craft short-armed a pullup jumper in the lane, gave Duke the lead for good. The Blue Devils built it to eight points with 1:04 left before the Buckeyes, fouling Duke on every possession, got within two points with 29 seconds left. But the Blue Devils made seven of their last eight free throws to lock up the victory.
“They scored 50 points in the second half,” Craft said. “They played harder. They have a tougher team.
“You let that crowd get into it, they flow off that, they feed off that. Guys started knocking down shots, different guys, and it’s over.”
Matta pointed the finger at defensive gaffes that resulted in Kelly’s two open threes, a three by Sulaimon and a catch-and-dunk rebound by Plumlee.
“We had chances to make plays (on defense) and we didn’t make plays,” he said. “They scored two times in a row on the same play. We knew the play was coming and we didn’t guard it the way we were supposed to guard it.
“Yeah, it’s early in the season, but damn, you’ve got to make those (plays). You can’t give it up two times in a row.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said it was “unbelievable” that his players were able to rally for the win three days after returning from the Bahamas, where they defeated Minnesota, Virginia Commonwealth and then-No.2 Louisville on consecutive days to win the Battle 4 Atlantis.
“I’ve got unbelievable guys on my team because they beat a heck of a team,” he said, “but they played four games like that in seven days, and they got knocked back in the first half and played great in the second half. Just fought.”
Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils had to adjust to how physically Ohio State defends.
“I was disappointed in our fight. I thought they were being more physical than we were,” he said.
“Could we muster up something? We not only mustered up something, we were really good in the second half.”