DURHAM, N.C. (AP)—Passes sailed out of bounds, loose balls went unrecovered, opposing scorers had room to operate—and Duke’s players weren’t discussing their mistakes with each other. No wonder the Blue Devils had the look of a team that hadn’t seen the court in two weeks.
While those miscues ultimately didn’t cost them against Cornell on Sunday night, it’s clearly a concern for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team as the Atlantic Coast Conference season approaches.
“I don’t know if we’re in game shape or game talk yet,” Krzyzewski said. “We just weren’t sharp.”
Slow-starting Duke went on to beat Cornell 81-67 behind DeMarcus Nelson’s 23 points, which matched a season high. But his big game was overshadowed by those nagging breakdowns that made the Blue Devils look sloppy.
“Our communication was lacking today, on both ends of the court,” Nelson said. “It starts with guys like me … to make sure and enforce that everyone’s talking on the court. Talk is something you think is not a big deal, but it’s huge in the game of basketball.”
Kyle Singler added 14 points for the Blue Devils (11-1), who were coming off a 16-day layoff—their longest in-season break in more than 60 years—and eventually pulled away for their NCAA-best 58th straight nonconference victory at home.
“It’s 16 days ago in a season, and it seems like it’s 16 years ago,” Krzyzewski said.
Gerald Henderson scored 12 points and Greg Paulus added 11 for Duke, which only briefly trailed late in the first half and took command early in the second with a 13-3 run. The victory gave Krzyzewski his 786th, tying Lefty Driesell for sixth on the all-time list.
Ryan Wittman had 13 points and 7-foot center Jeff Foote added 10 for Cornell (6-5), which was denied its first victory against an ACC team in 56 seasons.
Nelson became the 55th player in school history to reach 1,000 career points, matched the 23 he scored in Duke’s most recent home game, a 111-70 rout of Albany, and finished one point shy of his career high set last season against George Mason.
“It’s pretty impressive the ability that he has to compete, even against us,” Cornell coach Steve Donahue said. “He was one of their guys that just really had respect for us, played hard.”
Duke took its first double-figure lead just before halftime, using an 11-2 burst keyed by Henderson to make it 41-31 with 50 seconds left.
The Blue Devils then gave themselves some breathing room with their big second-half run, which started with freshman Nolan Smith’s layup at the 18:30 mark making it 43-37. The run ended 4 minutes later on Paulus’s jumper from just inside the arc.
Paulus then gave Duke its largest lead of the game when he took a flip from Lance Thomas and knocked down a 3 from the key to make it 59-44.
“There’s a point in every game against Duke, I think they’re going to pull away, to be quite honest,” Donahue said.
The Big Red didn’t get closer than eight the rest of the way and the Ivy League favorites extended their struggles against ranked teams, dropping their 13th straight and falling to 3-58 all-time against Top 25 foes since knocking off No. 19 California in 1992.
Still, they threw more of a scare than expected into the Blue Devils, who were coming off the longest in-season layoff since 1945-46 and hadn’t played since Dec. 20, when No. 13 Pittsburgh beat them 65-64 in overtime in New York to snap their 10-game winning streak.
“I wouldn’t use rusty. We just didn’t come out with the type of intensity and defensive intensity that we wanted to,” Henderson said. “That was a game Cornell could have won. We just didn’t play the way we planned on playing.”
The Big Red kept things close early and took a brief lead when Jason Hartford’s layup with 7:28 before halftime made it 24-22.
“Sometimes teams come here and get real tight. Other times, they’re so loose that they’re not afraid to lose, not afraid to fail, not afraid to make mistakes,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s where Cornell was, and that’s really good preparation on their part. As a result, you have to be real sharp because the crowd, the venue, it adds no pressure (on Cornell). … So you have to be that much better.”
Duke regained the lead for good 2 minutes later when Jon Scheyer’s 3 from the right wing made it 28-27.
Duke’s lineup at tipoff had a different look—Paulus and Thomas started on the bench, Smith made his first career start and 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek started for the second time this season.
“We’re still very much trying to find out about who our team is,” Krzyzewski said.