- Robbi Pickeral, College Basketball
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Less than 10 feet from the bucket and falling backward in Saturday's first half, Duke guard Seth Curry swirled through an unmakeable-looking basket that he, insisted with a grin, "knew was going in the whole time."
It was that kind of game for Curry, who made his first seven shots and set the tone for the third-ranked Blue Devils' 69-53 blowout over rival North Carolina.
It was that kind of game for Duke (27-4, 14-4 ACC), which may have finished second in the ACC regular-season standings but is looking more and more like the top team in the nation again, thanks to the return of forward Ryan Kelly, the inside play of senior Mason Plumlee and the dynamic scoring of Curry.
"We're re-energized,'' said Curry, who finished 8-for-13 with two assists and three rebounds. "We're having fun with our whole team back out there. And when we're on our A-game, we feel like we're one of the best teams in the country."
The Devils have systematically been returning to their A-game now that Kelly's back after missing 13 games because of an injured foot.
The senior -- who had averaged 27 points in the two games since his return last weekend -- was only 2-for-4 with eight points this time around. But the team, and his teammates, are looking more and more comfortable with the 6-foot-10 defense-stretcher back in the starting five.
First, there was Curry, who accounted for seven points in Duke's game-opening 14-0 run, and scored 18 of his 20 by halftime, giving the Blue Devils a comfy and crowd-caterwauling 42-24 lead at the Dean Smith Center.
"We didn't guard him; he just toyed with us,'' said UNC's Roy Williams, whose team (22-9, 12-6) shot just 27.3 percent in the first half, made only one of 14 3-pointers for the game, and who suffered his first Senior Night loss as a head coach. "He steps back, he goes to the rim, hits the open shots. He was in complete control on the offensive end, and we were a step slow getting a hand up, a step slow staying in front of him."
Then, there was Plumlee, who took over in the second half -- making mincemeat out of the smaller lineup that had helped UNC win six straight games. He scored Duke's first 10 points after the break and finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
"When you've got a guy with a hot hand like [Curry] in the first half, you've got to keep getting him the ball, and our guys did that. They're unselfish.'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "But the second half, that was a man's half. Mason was superb."
Those outputs weren't anything new for the Blue Devils' top two players. But performing that way with Kelly back in the mix -- rebounding, taking charges, pulling double-teams away from Plumlee because of his ability to hit 3-pointers -- is a good sign for the re-meshing of this team this late in the season.
After all, they started 15-0 and were ranked the No. 1 team in the nation before Kelly got hurt. Now, they remain undefeated this season when he's in the starting lineup.
And there's still room to improve.
"During the first 15 games with Ryan -- I don't think we [had] the best team in the country, by far but the best chemistry in those 15 games,'' Krzyzewski said. "They really enjoyed playing with each other, they made each other better, and we're trying to develop that again. It doesn't just happen.
"I'm proud of the guys when Ryan was out, to keep the ship afloat, to go 9-4, because we could have sunk real easy. And he came back to a group that hadn't lost its spot, so to speak. Still had its confidence and its sense of accomplishment."
And the desire to do more.
As pleased as he was by his team's performance against its Tobacco Road rival -- and that falling-backward-knew-it-would-go-in shot --- Curry said he's looking forward to what's next.
"We've got a lot of confidence with this team because we started the year so well,'' he said. "We know, all together, what we can be."