DURHAM, N.C. – His right hand clutched a bamboo cane topped with a skeleton head. His cheeks were covered with war paint that matched his frizzy, blue wig. His face often wore a scowl.
If the Cameron Crazies were going to do something, well … crazy, John Reynolds would've been the one leading the charge. Perhaps that's why a yellow-jacketed security guard approached the Duke senior with about two minutes remaining in Wednesday's 79-73 victory over North Carolina.
"You think there's any chance you guys are going to rush the court?" the officer asked.
Standing below the first row of bleachers just a few feet from the action, Reynolds spun and surveyed the student group standing behind him. He smiled.
"No," Reynolds told the guard. "Not tonight."
The answer mirrored the sentiment that hovered in Duke's locker room shortly after the final horn. Satisfying as the victory may have been, there could be even better things in store for the No. 5 Blue Devils.
And for Nolan Smith.
In helping Duke widen its lead over North Carolina in the ACC standings, Smith enhanced his chances in the national player of the year race by scoring a career-high 34 points in his final home game against the Tar Heels.
BYU's Jimmer Fredette tallies the most points and Jared Sullinger is one of the main reasons Ohio State has yet to lose a game. But since conference play began last month, no one has taken control of a team quite like Smith.
A point guard, Smith is averaging 23.8 points and 5.4 assists in conference play for the defending national champion Blue Devils, who are 22-2 overall and 9-1 in the ACC. On Wednesday he scored 22 points in the second half to help Duke erase a 16-point deficit.
The comeback was the school's largest since 1959.
"I knew I had to do whatever it took for us not to lose," Smith said.
Ever since freshman star Kyrie Irving went out with a toe injury the first week of December, that's been Smith's mantra.
Never known as a vocal leader, Smith is now a presence. The player who often chose to defer has now become an aggressor, the guy who entered the season as one of college basketball's top stars is suddenly its face.
It's not just Smith's numbers that are impressive. It's the tone he sets, the vibe he creates, the decisions he makes. His leadership is evident on the court – and in the locker room, where he answered questions after the game during a mock interview conducted by Irving.
The teammates chuckled throughout most of the questioning, but Smith's smile disappeared when Irving broached a taboo topic.
"So," Irving said, "are you paying much attention to the player of the year race?"
Smith mumbled a serious answer that he later repeated to reporters.
"Right now I'm running my own race – my team's race," Smith said. "If I get mentioned with those guys it'd be an honor, it'd be a privilege. But as long as Duke is winning, I'm happy."
Before Irving's injury Duke almost appeared invincible. The Blue Devils are certainly more vulnerable without his speed and ability to create for others – but that doesn't mean they're not an elite team.
Smith and fellow All-American candidate Kyle Singler were starters on last season's NCAA championship squad, and the Blue Devils have plenty of height, length and athleticism down low with Mason and Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.
The biggest difference-maker lately, though, has been sophomore Seth Curry, who is in his first season with the Blue Devils after transferring from Liberty. Curry scored a season-high 22 points Wednesday, including 13 during a 15-5 second-half run in which Duke turned a 49-40 deficit into a 55-54 lead.
The Blue Devils never trailed again.
"He's pretty damn good," Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Curry, the brother of former Davidson star Stephen Curry. "The thing that he's learned to do is get his shot off quicker. He was really coming off screens well and, when he did, he went right into his shot."
Curry and Smith combined for 21 of Duke's 28 field goals Wednesday.
"Both of those kids were sensational," Krzyzewski said.
Losses against Florida State and St. John's have caused Duke to fall out of the spotlight a bit during the past few weeks. But after Wednesday's victory against a rapidly improving North Carolina squad that will no longer be the case.
Duke thrust itself back into the NCAA championship picture thanks to the performance and leadership of a senior who can longer be ignored. There may be college basketball players just as good as Nolan Smith.
But you won't find any who are better.
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