No. 3 Duke figured the best way to win without Ryan Kelly was to play to its other strengths. That meant Seth Curry hitting from long range and Mason Plumlee converting from much closer.
Curry scored 24 points and matched a career high with six 3-pointers in the Blue Devils’ 73-57 win over Georgia Tech on Thursday night.
Plumlee finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds after going just 2 for 12 during an awful first half, and Duke (16-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) shot 53 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes to bounce back from its only loss and snap a three-game losing streak when playing without the injured Kelly.
“The biggest thing is, we have to find a new identity because we are a different team” without Kelly, Plumlee said. “Whatever that is, we have to find it. We have to play to our strengths, and we’re not the same team that was (15-0).”
Freshman Chris Bolden’s 20 points were the most scored by a Georgia Tech player this season.
But the Yellow Jackets (10-6, 0-4) had 21 turnovers in losing their fourth straight, remaining the only team winless in ACC play and falling to 5-32 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“They have two of the premier players not only in the league but in the country,” coach Brian Gregory said, referring to Curry and Plumlee, “and we couldn’t stop them in the second half.”
Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon broke out of a slump with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting after coming off the bench for the first time in his Duke career.
“It’s all about how you come back,” Plumlee said of Sulaimon. “I don’t know of any player who started every game ever at Duke. I mean, he sat Elton Brand and those guys. We just told him it’s part of the process.”
He was a combined 7 for 32 in his previous four games and missed all 10 of his shots in the 84-76 loss to then-No. 20 North Carolina State that knocked the Blue Devils from No. 1.
A second straight loss looked like a real possibility until Duke produced a 27-6 run that started late in the first half, ended early in the second and swung the lead its way to stay.
Curry — who has scored at least 22 points in three of his last four games — had 11 points during the burst.
He ended his team’s 5-minute field goal drought by swishing a deep 3-pointer that started the run with 2 minutes left in the half. Then, he added two more 3s shortly after halftime before his putback of a miss by Plumlee put Duke up 46-32 with just under 15 minutes to play.
That came two possessions after the signature snapshot of the night: After Plumlee got Cameron rocking with a dunk with 14 minutes left and Georgia Tech called a timeout, a fired-up coach Mike Krzyzewski charged off the bench to jump on and embrace his senior center.
“I think I’ve given emotion a lot during 33 years here at Duke, so I’m going to do whatever I think my team needs,” Krzyzewski said. “I did that in 1980 and I should do it in 2013. So I thought that’s what my team needed, and that’s what I gave.”
Tech cut the Duke lead to 10 points twice, the final time coming when Mfon Udofia’s three-point play with 6:48 left made it 57-47. Sulaimon countered with a three-point play 39 seconds later, Curry hit another 3 and Sulaimon followed with a dunk to make it 65-49 with just under 5 minutes to go.
Freshman Amile Jefferson finished with 10 rebounds for the Blue Devils, who played their second straight game without Kelly, a captain who’s out indefinitely with an injured right foot. He was on the bench in street clothes using crutches, his foot in a boot.
They ended a streak that dated to the 2012 postseason, having lost their previous three games without the 6-foot-11 senior whose outside touch commands opponents’ attention and respect.
“We’re used to having certain driving lanes and certain places we know we’re going to kick to with Ryan, but it’s totally different with Josh (Hairston) and Amile out there,” Curry said. “We’re still working on that, and some lanes close up quicker than others.”
With Duke still learning to play without him, Georgia Tech led for all but about a minute of the half and four times pushed its lead to seven points while clamping down on Plumlee and the Blue Devils in the opening 20 minutes.
“I thought we were hesitant to shoot,” Krzyzewski said, “and no team of mine should be that way.”