Duke plays the role of top seed against Robert Morris
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Duke plays the role of top seed against Robert Morris

Blue Devils put together a series of runs after slow start for 29-point victor

Photo: Duke freshman guard Tyus Jones

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As the Virginia band members packed up their instruments near the Time Warner Cable Arena tunnel exit following the school’s NCAA Tournament win over Belmont, they stepped aside to make room for the Robert Morris band.

They waited as the Colonials’ band members filed past offered these words of encouragement: “You’re the only ones that can beat Duke.”

It was either wishful thinking, playful banter or they had Robert Morris’ blue uniforms confused with top-ranked and unbeaten Kentucky.

Kentucky, after all, might be the only that can beat Duke after the No. 4-ranked Blue Devils (30-4) toyed with Robert Morris for an 85-56 victory Friday night in their South Regional game.

Duke (30-4), the top seed in the South, toyed with the 16th-seeded school from Pittsburgh, even though the Colonials (20-15) had the momentum of a win in the play-in game Tuesday night over North Florida in Dayton.

Duke will ninth-seeded San Diego State (27-8) as the Aztecs won 76 -64 over 10th-seeded St. John’s (21-12) in the late game in Charlotte. Senior forward J.J. O'Brien led the Aztecs with 18 points and 4 rebounds.

The easy win followed last year’s stunning first-round exit when Duke was upset by Mercer at PNC Arena down the street in Raleigh. Senior point guard Quinn Cook, the team leader, told his younger teammates to focus on this year’s team.

“It’s a new year and new team,” Cook aid. “”We we’re 0-0. We played some big-time games this year to earn a spot here. I told them to be themselves. I didn’t want them to think too much. I wanted them to act instinctively.”

Cook led Duke with 22 points and five assists. He hit 6 of 10 from three-point range. Freshman center Jahlil Okafor scored 21 points, but he had only three rebounds. Freshman guard Tyus Jones had 10 points with 2 of 5 three-pointers.

Marshall Plumlee played one of the strong games of his career with a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. Amile Jefferson also scored 10 points for five players in double figures.

Robert Morris actually scored first and led early as heavy underdogs often do in the NCAA Tournament. But the Colonials’ hard-earned 7-5 lead with 17:09 left in the first half soon vanished under a sudden flurry of three-point field goal an 11-0 run in less than two minutes.

Senior guard Quinn Cook connected from three-point range first followed by freshman guard Tyus Jones. Matt Jones mixed in a fast-break layup and Cook hit another three-pointer for a 16-7 lead.

But the Blue Devils weren’t finished putting this game away early. The run eventually reached 21-2 for a 26-9 lead with 10:46 remaining in the first half before the Colonials reached double-figures at 26-12 and the 10:31 mark.

Duke was third in three-point shooting in the Atlantic Coast Conference at .386 (250 of 648), but the Blue Devils on 5 of 10 in the first half and 10 of 21 (47.6 percent) for the game.

Robert Morris didn’t quit, though. The Colonials managed a comeback that trimmed the deficit to 54-44 with 13 minutes to play.

“The way we played during the stretch was how we were supposed to play for 40 minutes,” said Robert Morris’ Lucky Jones, who finished with 7 points and 3 rebounds. “I talked to the team and told them to push it. We wanted to stay with and to fight back and make the right plays. We did a great job during the run.”

But the Blue Devils went inside to Okafor for easy basket and the 58-48 lead was soon 68-48 and then 75-50.

“They are a terrific team,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. “They made the night uncomfortable for us. I thought our guys continued to battle, and I’m proud of that. I would liked to have made a few more shots with a little more poise on offense early, but it wasn’t enough.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, as is his custom, reminded everyone that his team faced a qualify program despite the lopsided final score.

“They’re not just a good team but an outstanding program,” Coach K said. “This is their eighth appearance in the NCAA tournament and they’ve had a number of NIT appearances. What Andy has done is not just build a good team but a good program.”

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Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom has also written for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Chargers.com, Rivals.com, and Gameday Central. He has won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003 and USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

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