DURHAM, N.C. (AP)—Nolan Smith soared through the air and tomahawked a dunk. Then he paused for a moment and allowed himself to crack a smile.
There certainly was plenty to like early on for No. 5 Duke.
Smith scored 18 of his 20 points during what he called “a near-perfect first half” and led the Blue Devils past struggling North Carolina State, 76-52 on Saturday night.
“At that point, everything was going our way,” Smith said, “so I figured that I’d smile.”
Mason Plumlee had 16 points and 12 rebounds while Kyle Singler added 14 points for Duke (21-2, 8-1), as the top team in the ACC had little trouble with one of its worst.
The Blue Devils put together two overwhelming runs in the half, needed fewer than 18 minutes to build a 30-point lead and coasted the rest of the way despite shooting just 19 percent during the final 20 minutes.
“Guys got comfortable. Of course, we wanted to stay on them and keep playing, but we didn’t,” Smith said.
Richard Howell had a career-high 18 points for the Wolfpack (12-11, 2-7), who had 16 turnovers and didn’t get closer than 21 in the second half. They outscored Duke 28-23 in the second half, but that wasn’t nearly enough to overcome their latest slow start. N.C. State dropped its fourth straight and seventh in eight games, and sank to 11th in the league.
“I’m very disappointed in our starts the last four games, and that’s really been a problem—we’ve gotten ourselves in a hole so fast,” coach Sidney Lowe said. “I’m not going to say it’s rock bottom. There’s still a lot to play for, and I think our kids showed that in the second half. We need to do that early in the game.”
Seth Curry had 13 points for the Blue Devils, who tuned up for the latest renewal of college basketball’s fiercest rivalry—Wednesday night’s showdown with No. 23 North Carolina—and extended their winning streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium to an NCAA-best 32 by making quick work of another neighboring rival.
Smith, who’s on pace to become the first player in ACC history to lead the league in scoring and assists, finished with seven assists for Duke and had his league-best 13th 20-point game.
In essentially sealing this one by halftime, the Blue Devils shot 64.5 percent in the half and made nearly as many shots (20) as the Wolfpack attempted (25).
The reigning national champions broke it open with a 21-2 burst midway through the half in which they scored 14 consecutive points—including a personal 6-0 run by Plumlee—and took their first 20-point lead on Curry’s jumper that made it 31-10 with 8 1/2 minutes left. That came after the highlight-reel dunk by Smith that followed his steal from freshman Ryan Harrow.
“We’re not a team that’s going to score a lot off of turnovers—we were more of that the beginning of the year,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said, referring to the indefinite loss of point guard Kyrie Irving two months ago to a toe injury. “So when you get a couple of those, oh boy, it gets our team excited.”
And they weren’t finished. Duke assembled a 16-2 run a few minutes later keyed by 3s from Smith, Curry and Singler, who also hit a free throw to make it 51-21 with 2:11 before the break.
“An ACC game, to be up like that is just not going to happen hardly at all,” Krzyzewski said.
N.C. State played without freshman big man C.J. Leslie, the team’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer who Lowe said was issued a one-game suspension Friday for violating an unspecified team rule.
Lorenzo Brown had 15 points and DeShawn Painter added 10 for the Wolfpack. They’ve lost 13 straight against Duke at Cameron—with 11 of those decided by double digits—and haven’t won a game on an opponent’s regular home court this season.
“This type of stuff kills confidence and morale,” Howell said. “But I think we’ve got enough players on this team to pick it up and make a deep run in the ACC tournament.”