Kelly enjoys a memorable return
After missing 13 games, he scores a career-high 36 points to lead Duke past Miami
DURHAM, N.C. -- Nearly 30 minutes prior to tipoff of No. 3 Duke's 79-76 victory over No. 5 Miami on Saturday, Ryan Kelly galloped onto the Cameron Indoor floor with his teammates.
As the layup line commenced and the cheers enveloped the arena, Amile Jefferson slapped Kelly's chest and yelled, "Let's go!"
Kelly only nodded.
That stoic pregame demeanor contained the anxious persona of a man who could no longer sit on the sideline. He hadn't played in nearly two months.
After Friday's practice, however, Kelly told coaches and trainers that it was time.
In his first game back, he did not display the signs of a man ailing from a foot injury that had kept him off the floor for 13 games.
By end of the first half, the 6-foot-11 forward had scored 20 of his career-high 36 points. He'd nearly reached his previous career high (23 points) before halftime.
Many expected Kelly's return as the rumors about a possible comeback intensified. But who knew he'd return as Larry Bird?
"I wouldn't say [the game was] a dream, but I was just trying to win and do whatever it took to win," he said. "Today it was making shots and they were going in. And even if they weren't, I wanted to play my hardest to win."
Every shot that flew off Kelly's fingertips seemed to find the rim. It did not take long to realize that the Hurricanes -- and even the Blue Devils -- had not prepared for the uncanny performance.
"Me saying spectacular or whatever doesn't do his performance justice," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. Added Miami coach Jim Larranaga: "He was sensational from start to finish. He scored 36 points on 14 shots. That's outrageous."
In 40 minutes of entertainment, the college basketball world recognized the tools and skills the Blue Devils lacked when Kelly missed those 13 games. It took 40 minutes for Duke to prove it is the best college basketball team in America when it's healthy. And it took only 40 minutes for Kelly to prove he's back and ready to help this squad make a run to Atlanta.
"He was the extra lift that we needed, he was the extra energy that we needed," said freshman Rasheed Sulaimon. "He played tremendous. Every time we had a lull or a dead period, he was the one to pick us up. We were missing a great player in Ryan, but also we were missing a great leader, so we're just happy to have him back."
The stretch-four is a term that's used to describe a forward with the ability to operate efficiently and effectively on the perimeter.
In college basketball, players often embellish when they describe their respective roles. Coaches, too.
Every shooting guard believes he's capable of playing point guard. Every center can "hit the outside shot when I need to." Every point guard thinks his shooting ability is underrated.
Most of the athletes who claim to play the stretch-four position fail to demonstrate the versatility that the term entails. But Kelly is a real stretch-four. He possesses a rare combination of size, shooting ability and interior talent.
On Saturday, he stretched the floor in ways Duke did not -- could not -- when he was sidelined.
In the first half, Larranaga put Kenny Kadji on Kelly. But Kadji was a step slow whenever Kelly rotated to the perimeter. Then Larranaga tried Julian Gamble. With 13:14 to play, Kelly pump-faked, drove to the rim and hit a floater while Gamble trailed him.
With Kelly injured, teams could put multiple players on Mason Plumlee. With Kelly available, Miami did not have that option.
"I think the biggest thing is I didn't see one double-team," Plumlee said. "Like [against] Virginia, I couldn't touch the ball without seeing two guys, and I don't think that'll happen as much with him on the floor."
Kelly's presence changes Duke's offense and it limits the defensive schemes opponents can use against the Blue Devils.
Kelly was a bad matchup for the Hurricanes. He was unavailable when Miami whipped Duke by 27 points on Jan. 23.
In the rematch, Kelly connected on his second shot, a 3-pointer that gave Duke a 5-4 lead with 17:54 remaining in the first half. He missed his next one, but he continued to shoot.
With every attempt he made -- he scored 13 points on four 3-pointers and a free throw in the final 8:29 of the first half -- the roar in Cameron Indoor increased by multiple decibels.
But the Blue Devils were still down by two points, 36-34, at halftime because they'd given Durand Scott (12 points, eight in the first half), Shane Larkin (25 points) and Kadji (17 points, 10 rebounds) too much freedom.
In a game that featured nine ties and 13 lead changes, the back-and-forth action dominated a chunk of the second half, too. By then, however, it was obvious the Blue Devils would avoid another blowout against Miami. But would they win?
Kelly's 3-pointer with 9:13 on the game clock gave the Blue Devils a lead they never surrendered. It was the momentum shift Duke needed to completely separate down the stretch. And it commenced a 20-9 run that allowed the program to avenge that earlier loss to the Hurricanes.
When Quinn Cook nailed a 3-pointer that gave Duke a 75-65 edge with 1:55 to play, he sprinted up the court. Then, he turned to the crowd, used some colorful language and slapped the floor. Kelly slapped the floor, too.
Players claimed that the sequence wasn't planned, even though the Hurricanes mimicked Duke's trademark maneuver in the first matchup.
"It was spontaneous. It's just something that happens," Plumlee said. "We don't come into the huddle and say that we're going to slap the floor. You need a big stop, get the guys going and we slap it."
And just when Duke had seized a comfortable lead, it lost it.
Trey McKinney-Jones' 3-pointer with 1:06 to go capped a 10-3 rally for the Hurricanes. Cook committed a critical turnover on Duke's next possession, and then he fouled Larkin on the latter's ridiculous turnaround-layup attempt. Larkin made 1 of 2 free throws.
The score: 78-76. Plumlee broke Miami's press and then launched a full-court pass to Seth Curry that rolled past the end line.
The palpable nervousness in the arena turned when Larkin lost Miami's next possession.
But the Hurricanes had another shot -- two, actually -- after Curry missed 1 of 2 free throws in the final seconds. Both Larkin and Rion Brown launched late 3-pointers.
They didn't fall.
So Kelly was serenaded as he left the court. After the game, the veteran said that he'd played without pain most of the evening.
He did not elaborate on the injury and the program has been vague with details, but Kelly did credit the team's trainers for having him prepared for Saturday's showdown.
"I got some stuff in my shoe," he said.
And fire in his hands.
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