It took every single one of Duke’s starters to beat Louisville for the Battle 4 Atlantis Championship Saturday night.
But the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Quinn Cook, came up the biggest of them all in #5 Duke’s (6-0) 76-71 win over #2 Louisville (5-1).
Cook, who posted 15 points, a game-high six assists and four rebounds, scored Duke’s last eight points in the final 1:16 of play and responded to every one of Louisville’s buckets at the end of the game. His clutch free-throw shooting (4-for-4 in the last 13 seconds of the game) and well-rounded performance showed not just the progress he has made in terms of developing his game, but also gave Duke fans a glimpse of how good of a leader he can be and how he turned a pre-season question mark into a tentative strength.
We’ve talked before about how important Cook is, and how Duke needed another player that can create their own shot. However, Cook’s greatest strengths don’t lie in his ability to make perimeter shots or get to the basket, but it’s the fact that he opens up opportunities for his teammates and is reliable. The sophomore point guard had to make big-time plays in big-time situations last night and came through. He also turned the ball over just seven times (a number that can still be improved) on back-to-back nights against two defenses that are known for forcing turnovers and pressuring opposing points guards into mistakes.
Cook not only withstood that pressure, but he flourished in it.
Ryan Kelly also came up huge for Duke but his most important contribution isn’t something that sticks out in the box score — it’s his block with a little over a minute left in the game that turned a Louisville fast break opportunity into an easy two points for the Blue Devils, giving them the four-point edge. It was the defensive play of the game and completely shifted the momentum. Kelly chipped in 14 points, six rebounds and four assists as well and fouled out after two questionable calls at the end of the game.
Another big man in foul trouble, Mason Plumlee continued his much improved free-throw shooting (4-for-5) and led Duke in both scoring (16) and rebounds (seven). An all-tournament selection, Plumlee was a consistent threat all game and all weekend long although he — along with Kelly and Duke’s other bigs — needs to rebound and box out better.
Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon had another impressive performance, even if his 14 points, four rebounds and three steals don’t jump out at you in the box score. Sulaimon did a beautiful job of driving by his defender and making mid-range jump shots while the Blue Devils traded baskets several times with the Cardinals. He gave Duke a significant scoring threat from anywhere on the court while also playing good defense.
Seth Curry, who also tallied 14 points, didn’t shoot well from the field but knocked down all six of his free throws and helped provide the Blue Devils with a very balanced attack. He made a big three-pointer just before the first half ended to extend Duke’s lead to eight at the break, a difference Louisville couldn’t erase much of the second half. The Blue Devils played well as a whole and although they certainly could’ve rebounded better and shot above 25% from beyond the arc, there isn’t much more you could ask from them against a very good Louisville team.
After a tough half dozen games to open this season, it doesn’t get much easier for Duke. They face #3 Ohio State at home Wednesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on ESPN at 9:30pm (EST). It will be the third team the Blue Devils face who are ranked in the top-three [at the time] and gives the guys great tests night in and night out to improve themselves and make them a better team when March rolls around.