Duke uses D to grind out ugly game over Michigan State

INDIANAPOLIS -- Players kept looking to the scoreboard, looking at each other, looking at nothing at all.

Blank looks consumed them. Even the sideline animation of Tom Izzo disappeared for a stretch.

Michigan State had faded to brick. The Spartans went more than eight minutes without a field goal as Duke’s lead mushroomed to double digits late, finishing 71-61 in the Sweet 16 round in Lucas Oil Stadium.

This wasn’t about lack of late-game poise or physicality. This was simply a foul-fest of an ugly game, which should have suited Michigan State. But Duke showed it can win ugly.

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Michigan State big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne -- a physical front line that was expected to give Duke problems -- combined to shoot 6-of-20.

The Spartans had one basket outside of the paint in the second half, a 3 by Payne in the final minutes and the game out of reach. Branden Dawson’s short jumper with 3:34 left finally ending the field-goal drought.

The Spartans had no one to blame but themselves. And Duke’s defense.

“It was hard for us to get a wide-open shot,” said guard Travis Trice.

In fact, Seth Curry was about the only thing pretty about this game.

By the time that Michigan State started to figure Curry out, 25 of his game-high 29 points already pushed through the net with metal completely untouched.

Curry’s six 3-pointers, including three in the first three minutes of the second half, offset his teammates shooting 1-of-9 from 3.

Couple Michigan State’s offensive droughts with several silly fouls away from the ball and late in the shot clock, and the Spartans couldn’t recover.

Duke did much of its damage from the free-throw line, making eight in the final two minutes, 24-of-26 overall.

For all of Michigan State’s toughness, it couldn’t close out on screens at the 3-point line, where Curry needed inches of space before green-lighting.

Curry said the gameplan was for him to turn on the screen and get ready to shoot because MSU’s bigs didn’t always show.

“They could have a tendency to relax at times,” Curry said.

From his locker well past midnight, Curry grabbed a stat sheet, glanced at the numbers for a few seconds and tossed the sheet to the floor.

In the tournament, Duke’s best chance against Louisville in the Elite Eight probably won’t come from the stat sheet.

It will come from a rejuvenated defensive team that isn’t exactly known for physicality.

Center Mason Plumlee and forward Ryan Kelly stood their ground in the paint against Payne and Nix. Michigan State wanted to play the inside-out game with Nix but never got its shooters in a rhythm off the pass.

Kelly, not known as an imposing force down low, finished with four blocks.

Many players remain from the Duke team that gave up 75 points to Lehigh in last year’s NCAA tournament first-round loss.

“We took that to heart,” said Kelly about last year’s defense. “Everybody talked about it. We had something to prove. There have been times this year when we played great defense. This is certainly the time to do it.”

A layup by Michigan State guard Gary Harris with 12:05 left cut Duke’s lead to 47-43. That’s when the drought happened. Ten straight misses. By the time that they found the rim, the game was basically out of reach.

Duke grinded the game out, with Plumlee making two tough second-half layups despite foul trouble, and subtle changes on defense flustered the Spartans.

“They doubled, and they took away my right hand,” Payne said. “We were getting looks at the rim. They just weren’t going in.”

Considering both teams were in the bonus about midway through the second half, this game seemed destined to slog along. Since Michigan State ended the first half on a 9-2 run, outrebounded Duke and didn’t turn the ball over wildly, the Spartans had hope that never materialized.

They didn’t have Seth Curry.

Duke certainly does, though Curry must face Louisville’s vaunted press defense on a quick turnaround.

Duke will never be a glass-chewing, muscle-bound force in the paint, ready to throw bodies around.  

But there was a relentless defense on the floor on Friday.

“People can say all they want,” Kelly said, “as long as we keep winning.”

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