Credit: Duke Photography
December 2, 1968. That’s the date of the first game I ever saw in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Actually, it was Duke Indoor Stadium. It wasn’t renamed for Eddie Cameron until 1972.
I’ve seen over a thousand basketball games there, men’s games, women’s games, freshmen games, in-season tournament games, even a couple of NIT games back in 1981.
I bring this up to suggest that my frame-of-reference goes pretty deep.
And I’ve never seen anything to compare to what Ryan Kelly pulled off Saturday night.
Playing his first game in seven weeks, playing after only a silly centimeter of practice, Kelly torched fifth-ranked Miami for a career-high 36 points, leading third-ranked Duke to a 79-76 win.
It’s not like Kelly was a high-volume shooter, either. He made 10-14 from the field and 9-12 from the line. Kelly went 7-9 from beyond the arc. Thirty-six points on 14 field-goal attempts? Miami coach Jim Larranaga called this “quite frankly, ridiculous.”
In many respects, Ryan Kelly is a typical Duke student. His father went to Yale, his mother went to Pennsylvania. His mother is the chief administrator at Ravenscroft, a tiny Raleigh private school that dates back to 1862.
Kelly was a National Merit semifinalist, a National Honor Society member. What you would expect from the principal’s son.
But there’s another narrative. Kelly’s father played basketball in college and professionally in France. His mother was a college volleyball player. A grandfather played basketball at Fordham, two uncles played at smaller schools. Ravenscroft takes academics seriously but they do the same with athletics. Kelly’s prep coach was Kevin Billerman, who started at point for Duke in the 1970s and was head coach at Florida Atlantic.
So, do your homework and then work on your foul-shooting.
Not surprisingly the 6-11 Kelly was prime-time recruit, a Parade and McDonald’s All-American, who picked Duke over North Carolina, NC State, Georgetown and Virginia among others. He played sparingly as a freshman for Duke’s 2010 NCAA title team and became a rotation reserve as a sophomore.
Kelly became a starter last season, averaging 12 points and five rebounds per game. A foot injury kept him out of the postseason and Duke went splat. There was a clear cause and effect.
Kelly isn’t an uber-athlete and he looks like bullies could kick sand in his face at the beach. But he came to Duke with the reputation as a cerebral player, with a great work ethic and a first-rate skill set.
He’s put on 20 pounds of solid muscle since coming to Duke and can hold his own in the paint, looks notwithstanding. He blocks shots, draws charges, communicates at a high level and lures opposing defenders outside their comfort zone with one 20-foot rainbow after another. Kelly is shooting over 50 percent from 3-point land this season, impressive for anyone, off the charts for a 6-11, stretch 4.
The Duke coaches rave about his basketball IQ. Understands-angles-better-than-anyone-and-plays-well-with-others-doesn’t wow casual fans but it sure wins games.
Kelly was playing the best basketball of his career when he went down with a foot injury on January 8 against Clemson.
Duke was undefeated when they lost Kelly. Junior Josh Hairston and freshman Amile Jefferson did their best to fill in. Both bring positives to the table but neither has much of a perimeter game. Opposing teams could drop off and double-team Mason Plumlee with impunity.
Duke didn’t exactly go into free fall. They went 9-4 without Kelly, all four losses on the road.
Kelly waited and healed. He did work in the pool, enough to maintain some conditioning. Word came early last week that he was off the crutches. He went to Virginia on Thursday and participated in the pre-game shoot-around. Kelly told Duke that he felt good and was ready to go.
Mike Krzyzewski declined. He said that Kelly hadn’t even practiced and it just didn’t feel right.
So Kelly sat and Virginia won 73-68.
Duke got back to Durham around 1 A.M. Friday. Practice later that day was little more than a walk-through. But Kelly participated and was mobile and pain free.
Game-time Saturday. Kelly says he lobbied hard to see the court, telling Krzyzewski “it’s time.” Krzyzewski agreed.
A prudent man would have expected Kelly to ease back slowly, shaking off seven weeks’ worth of rust. I certainly predicted as much.
Shows how much I know.
It took Kelly 25 seconds to get his first shot against Miami, a 3-pointer. He missed.
I guess that was the rust.
Kelly hit a 3-pointer two minutes later and nailed two shorter shots before the second media timeout. He wasn’t a cautious, stationary player either. Outfitted with a special shoe that controlled movement, Kelly was running, jumping, twisting, getting knocked down and getting back up without any signs that he was in any way inconvenienced by a bad foot.
Duke needed everything it got from Kelly. Miami led most of the first half, peaking at 27-20. Remember, this is the same Miami team that blasted Duke 90-63 back in January.
But it wasn’t the same Duke team. Kelly kept firing, Kelly kept hitting, Kelly kept Duke close. Larranaga recalled turning to one of his assistants after a made 3-pointer and exclaiming “that guy’s unconscious.”
He wasn’t sure which one.
Which is understandable.
Kelly hit five 3-pointers in the first half, including four straight, three in a span of less than two minutes. He cut a six-point lead in half, cut a five-point lead to two, cut a four-point lead to one and finally tied the game at 31.
He ended the half with 20 points.
And Duke still trailed 36-34. Krzyzewski said Duke spent too much time watching Kelly and not enough time chasing down loose balls.
And Miami is pretty good.
Duke got a little more scoring balance in the second half and the two teams settled into what can only be described as a great college basketball game. From the 4:28 mark of the first half to the 8:40 mark of the second half, neither team ever led by more than a possession.
Miami started playing Kelly tighter and Kelly started going to the line. He made two foul shots to cut the Miami lead to 56-55, then put Duke up 58-56 with a 3-pointer.
Duke never trailed again.
Mason Plumlee put Duke up by four but a Shane Larkin 3 cut it back to one. Then Kelly hit his seventh and final 3-pointer to make it 63-59, with 6:30 left.
Kelly made three of four foul shots and Rasheed Sulaimon scored four points and suddenly Duke had some separation. A Quinn Cook 3-pointer put the Blue Devils up 75-65, with 1:55 left.
Most teams in that situation go gently into that good night. But did I mention that Miami is pretty good? The Hurricanes executed the late-game about as well as they could, Duke missed five foul shots and turned it over twice. It ended only when Miami missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final seconds.
You’d think Kelly would have needed smelling salts after his 32-minute effort. But he held court to the media and the TV cameras and the radio folks as long as necessary. “I don’t have much energy left. I just wanted to win. I was tired at times out there but pushed myself through it. They were going in. It happens like that sometimes.”
Courtesy: Duke Sports Information
Mike Krzyzewski was suitably impressed. “We were all privileged to see one of the performances of the ages, by Ryan Kelly. Me saying spectacular or whatever doesn’t do his performance justice. One for the ages. Probably as good a performance as any Duke player has had in Cameron.”
Mason Plumlee may benefit more than anyone from Kelly’s return. Not even trying to hide a smile, Plumlee says Duke’s ceiling got a lot higher with Kelly’s return.
Larranaga? “We prepared for Ryan Kelly. We didn’t prepare for that Ryan Kelly.”
Postscript. Kelly demonstrated that his comeback was more than just a one-hit wonder, scoring 18 points and pulling down a game-high nine rebounds, as Duke defeated Virginia Tech 85-57 Tuesday night.
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