There among the Ohio State contingent were a trio of familiar faces spanning more than 40 years of basketball drama at Cameron Indoor Stadium, unhappy witnesses as Duke extended to 97 its streak of consecutive home wins against nonconference opponents.
Greg Paulus, a former Cameron denizen, sat on the OSU bench. The Duke guard from 2006-09 now serves as video coordinator for the Buckeyes. Closer to head coach Thad Matta perched Dave Dickerson, a former Maryland Terrapin (1986-89) and longtime assistant to Gary Williams at their alma mater. Dickerson is now OSU’s associate head coach.
And among the family members on hand to cheer the Big Ten power, fourth-ranked in the nation, was Charles Scott, father of Buckeye sophomore Shannon Scott.
The elder Scott of course starred at North Carolina between 1968 and 1970. The big guard shocked Duke with perhaps the greatest clutch performance in ACC Tournament history, rallying the Tar Heels to victory by scoring a record 40 points in the ’69 final -- 25 coming in the second half on 12 of 13 shooting.
In an era when only the official league champion advanced to the NCAAs, the win kept Dean Smith’s 1969 squad alive to reach its third Final Four in a row. Not until Duke went to five straight Final Fours from 1988-92 under Mike Krzyzewski did an ACC program sustain a longer run to the NCAA tournament’s final weekend.
But Scott never won at what was then Duke Indoor Stadium, and his son’s team was not victorious the other night. “I never had much success here,” Scott said without rancor before returning to Columbus with an 0-4 family mark in the old building.
Scott’s first visit to Duke had produced another immortal result in the Carolina rivalry – a 1968 Blue Devil victory in which junior forward Fred Lind came off the bench to score more points in three overtime periods than in all the team’s preceding contests combined.
The visit this time was the nightcap of the two-day, 12-game ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a chance for Duke to avenge an embarrassing loss to the Buckeyes last season and for the ACC to salvage a tie in the annual inter-league series.
For the contestants, the game was both more and less than that, an early test in a long, uncertain march toward a national championship.
Prior to the season most prognosticators pegged the Blue Devils as an outside horse in the race to the top, even picking them to finish behind N.C. State in the ACC.
Yet as the season has unfolded it’s been Krzyzewski’s 33rd Duke squad that climbed steadily in popular estimation, based not on hype but on achievement. The 73-68 victory over Ohio State already was the third of the season against a top-five opponent.
“With our team we don’t have to build character, we have it,” Krzyzewski said of a unit led by three seniors – Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee. The latter two are playing the best ball of their careers; Curry is struggling through a clearly painful leg problem. “We just have to get it higher.”
Krzyzewski, the master of his team’s fate, had jokingly questioned Duke’s scheduler four days previously, after the Blue Devils won the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Along the way to the title they defeated Minnesota from the Big Ten, dangerous Virginia Commonwealth, and second-ranked Louisville on consecutive days.
Early in November Duke had knocked off No. 3 Kentucky in a matchup at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Scattered along the way were wins over Georgia State and Florida Gulf Coast.
Against FGC, coached by former Florida State assistant Andy Enfield, the Devils showed a flash of the dominance of old, running off 30 unanswered points at Cameron. “I’ve never heard of a 30-0 run before,” Enfield said. “First one I’ve been a part of.”
The challenge was more bracing against Ohio State, whose physical play knocked the Blue Devils back a step.
Point guard Quinn Cook was twice calmed by officials; the sophomore admitted he and D.C. buddy Tyler Thornton felt “punked” early on by the Buckeye guards. Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon looked tentative, his dribble shaky. He failed to score in the first half.
OSU garnered 11 offensive rebounds in the period, exploiting an acknowledged Duke weakness on the defensive boards.
The first-half performance predictably precipitated a dressing-down by Krzyzewski in the privacy of the locker room -- to great effect. “They pushed us, we were going to push them back,” Thornton said of the Devils’ resolve.
A repurposed Sulaimon, whom Krzyzewski counts among the nation’s best freshmen, had all 17 of his points in the second half. Cook finished with 12 points, eight assists, and six defensive rebounds. Plumlee, the ACC’s best player this season, had the majority of his 21 points and 17 rebounds in the period.
Kelly hit consecutive 3-pointers at a crucial juncture for Duke, augmenting his 15 points with three blocks and his usual savvy all-around play.
“We’re a much better team than we were last year,” Krzyzewski offered with little hesitation. “We’re older. We’re more athletic. We have one of the best players in the country with Mason.”
Last season the Blue Devils lacked consistency and coherence and still won 27 games, 13 in the conference. Now they’re second-ranked and proven as December dawns.
“We’ve stepped up to the challenge in every situation,” said a pleased Kelly. The result is a 7-0 start, a declaration of prowess that’s earned, not spoken, and a disappointing visit for a few familiar friends.