A closer look: Duke 77, Tennessee 67

November, 21, 2011
11/21/11
8:21
PM ET
Overview: Duke got more than most people expected from a depleted Tennessee team in the opening round of the Maui Invitational. But in the end the Blue Devils simply had too much -- too much talent, too many threats. Duke won its 13th game in as many tries in Maui, beating the Volunteers 77-67.

Turning point: This wasn’t so much a turning-point game as it was a wear-you-down game. Duke just had too many bodies and too many good players for the Vols, and the Blue Devils finally stretched their lead toward the middle of the second half.

Why Duke won: The Blue Devils’ backcourt was terrific, with Austin Rivers (18 points) and Seth Curry (17 points) leading a hot-shooting Duke team. More important, the Blue Devils' ability to drain 3-pointers was the ultimate dagger. Duke hit seven of them, while Tennessee came up empty in eight tries. It was the first time in 14 years a UT team failed to make a 3.

Why Tennessee lost: Numbers and talent. This game isn’t complicated. Usually the team with the most skilled players wins and that’s exactly what happened to the Vols. Oh, and all of those missed 3s and blown layups didn't help.

Star of the game: He wasn’t the high scorer but Ryan Kelly, inserted into the starting lineup two games ago now, finished with 17 points and asserted himself at a critical time. With Tennessee still hanging around, Kelly sunk a jumper, grabbed a defensive rebound and sunk two free throws to give the Blue Devils a much-needed eight-point cushion.

What it means: For Duke, it’s business as usual in the land of luaus and leis. The Blue Devils have played at the Maui Invitational four times and won four titles. … Tennessee isn’t a program terribly interested in moral victories, not with its recent history. But considering what the Volunteers have been through in this past calendar year, a competitive loss to Duke -- one that was much closer than that for much of the game -- has to count for something. This is a confidence boost and more, a morale boost for a team that needs to believe in itself more than anything this season.

More observations: If this is how Cuonzo Martin’s Tennessee team is going to play, people are going to be in for a treat. These Vols are much more hard-nosed and scrappy than their previous iteration, evidenced not just by their tenacity to stay in this game but by their work on the boards and on 50-50 balls. It didn't take long for this group to adopt its coach's tough persona. Impressive. … Curry may not quite be his older brother’s reincarnation, but he’s an awfully nice option. Curry has been absolutely terrific all season, not just scoring in double-figures in every game but taking smart shots. He’s shooting 52 percent from the field. He also had four assists against Tennessee.

What’s next: The Blue Devils meet Michigan in the semifnals, a team that gave Duke all it could handle in the NCAA tournament last season. The Blue Devils won 73-71, but only because Darius Morris’ buzzer-beating runner came up short. Tennessee, meanwhile, takes its inner-state rivalry game to the beach. The Volunteers play Memphis on Tuesday afternoon.

Dana O'Neil | email

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