DURHAM, N.C. – After 13 games of waiting, wondering, worrying and "bailing water" – as Mike Krzyzewski put it – there was no reason to delay it any longer.
Ryan Kelly would play for Duke on Saturday against Miami. Ryan Kelly would start. And Ryan Kelly would get the opening shot.
“The first play was for him,” center Mason Plumlee said.
Twenty-five seconds into what would be one of the most entertaining games of the season, Kelly launched his first shot since Jan. 8. It was a 3-pointer from the wing. It missed.
After that, the rust turned to gold dust.
Machine Gun Kelly went off. He had a game on par with anything Mike Gminski, Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Elton Brand or any other Duke big man ever did in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Thirty-six points and a 79-76 victory later, Kelly completed one of the most amazing return-from-prolonged-absence games in college basketball history. This was the senior forward’s career high by 13 points, and 23 more than his season average, and it came after weeks of sitting around in street clothes. It was a barrage of extraordinary efficiency (he attempted just 14 field goals in the game), and it stunned everyone in attendance.
“Well, I thought we prepared for Ryan Kelly,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “But not for that Ryan Kelly. … That is quite frankly ridiculous.
“I thought we closed out on him very well. One of the 3s that he hit, I turned to my staff and said, ‘This guy is unconscious.’ It was 30 feet.”
It might not have been Michael Jordan scoring 55 in Madison Square Garden after a two-year retirement, but then again, that was MJ’s fifth game back. Kelly didn’t need four games to be ready to go ham.
“We were all privileged to see one of the performances of the ages, I think, by Ryan Kelly,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “… That’s one of those things that just doesn’t happen. How did that happen? I don’t know how the hell that happened.”
In literal terms, here’s how it happened:
Kelly, who had been rehabbing what remains an undisclosed foot injury for nearly two months, went through Duke’s shootaround at Virginia on Thursday and told Krzyzewski he felt good. But the coach did not want to play him without seeing him go through a formal practice. That happened Friday, in preparation for this showdown with ACC-leading Miami, which had mauled the Blue Devils by 27 points in mid-January.
But even the Friday workout was a short one – “maybe 20 minutes,” Krzyzewski said. Still, he decided to start Kelly and just see how long he could go.
The ovation when Kelly was announced with the starting lineup rattled the rafters of historic old Cameron. But that was nothing compared to the roars that followed, as Kelly made one shot after another after another.
It was like he’d been away half an hour, not half a season. In fact, the shooting line Kelly produced was nearly identical to what he did in the last two games he played before the injury – against Wake Forest and Clemson, he was a combined 10 of 18 from the field, 7 of 9 from 3-point range and 7 of 8 from the foul line. In this game, Kelly was 10 of 14 from the field, 7 of 9 from 3-point range and 9 of 12 from the foul line.
“I don’t think anybody thought he could come out that strong,” Plumlee said. “He exceeded his expectations, our expectations, coach’s expectations.”
Kelly went on to play 32 minutes, far more than anyone could have anticipated. That’s a credit to his conditioning while sitting out, especially since conditioning is difficult to maintain with a foot injury.
“I was tired as heck out there,” Kelly said.
Other than fatigue, the only indicator that Kelly wasn’t in game shape was a “little blister” on his foot. There were no limps or grimaces when he left the court to the shrieking approval of the Cameron Crazies, who reached out their hands to touch his like one of the all-time Duke greats.
Though he is not yet a career 1,000-point scorer in 119 games, Kelly’s impact on the Blue Devils cannot be mistaken any longer. Before the injury, they were 15-0 and ranked No. 1. Without him they were 9-4, a record Krzyzewski is proud of.
“We were actually bailing water,” he said. “Making sure the ship stayed afloat.”
If Duke can take care of business Tuesday against Virginia Tech and then win at North Carolina next Saturday, the Blue Devils will stake a convincing claim to the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That would run their record to 18-0 with Kelly in the lineup.
“He gives us a higher ceiling,” Plumlee said. “We could have been good and we could have made a run, but with Ryan we’re undefeated.”
Said guard Seth Curry: “We feel like we can take on the world when we have our full team.”
Here’s hoping Duke takes on the Hurricanes at least once more, in the ACC tournament. Because as good as the Blue Devils and Kelly were Saturday night, they still had to withstand two missed 3-pointers at the end of the game that could have forced overtime. Miami stepped into a crazed atmosphere against a team intent on revenge and buoyed by the brilliant return of a key player – and still nearly won.
In a week riddled with lousy road losses for ranked teams, this was a good loss for Miami. Both these teams can bounce out of this game feeling good about themselves.
But nobody should feel better than Ryan Kelly. A gray plastic walking boot remained in his locker after the game, a symbol of the frustrating two months he spent out of action. Kelly took it off Saturday, opting for a Superman cape instead.
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