No more excuses: Sulaimon impresses in first Duke-North Carolina matchup
Duke rookie guard Rasheed Sulaimon has regressed to playing like a freshman at times this season.
Sulaimon had four points, shooting 1-of-6 from the field, in the Blue Devils’ win at Boston College Sunday.
Sulaimon, averaging 11.5 points per game, played more like an upperclassman in his first taste of the Tobacco Road showdown Wednesday with archrival North Carolina (16-8, 6-5 Atlantic Coast Conference). The Houston native scored in double figures for the 16th time this season, netting 13 points and leading the No. 2 Blue Devils (22-2, 9-2 ACC) with five assists in the 73-68 win.
“In this venue, when it’s your first Duke-North Carolina game, to do it makes a little more impressive,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “…He was exhausted and usually an upperclassman can work through tired better, but he was able to kind of learn tonight, to work through being tired.”
Sulaimon logged more minutes (38) than anyone else on the floor, shooting 5-of-11 from the field and scoring nine second-half points.
“I have no more excuses,” said Sulaimon. “It’s February right now. I’m not a freshman anymore. I’ve got to step up and help my teammates out. The great thing about this team and this coaching staff is they have confidence in me and they have the belief I can do it. If they believe in me, why shouldn’t I?”
Duke sank three consecutive 3-pointers as part of an 11-4 run in the second half after trailing by as many as 10 in the first half.
Sulaimon ignited a festive crowd, celebrating Krzyzewski’s 66th birthday, at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a 3 from the left wing to put the Devils up 47-43 with 13:08 to play. The freshman had a quick release, catching a pass from point guard Quinn Cook in transition and shooting seemingly in a single motion.
“Just kind of an instinct thing,” Sulaimon said of the triple, which forced a 30-second Tar Heel timeout. “When (Quinn) passed it to me, as he was passing it to me, I saw on his face, he said, ‘Shoot it, make it.’ So as soon as I caught it, I just shot it with confidence and I was very fortunate that it went in.”
“After I made it and heard the crowd and Quinn jumped on me, I realized what I had just done,” Sulaimon added. “I think that was a pivotal point along with some other plays that kind of helped us move in the right direction towards the win.”
“I just saw him and hit him,” said Cook, who had 18 points. “We just gave each other energy. I kind of gave him a little hug, just kind of get momentum in the building.”
That momentum carried over to the free throw line, where Duke hit 13 straight from the line, missing only one free throw in the second half. North Carolina was 9-of-17 from the charity stripe in the second, finishing 13-23 on the game.
“It just shows that hard work does pay off,” said Sulaimon. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to win whether that means diving on a loose ball or staying an extra hour after practice to get up shots to help our team. We’re willing to do that. I just love these guys.”
The win marked Blue Devils’ 19th consecutive over an unranked opponent, but Sulaimon said the Blue Devils, who visit Maryland Saturday, knew they were in for a “dogfight” with North Carolina, which has dropped six of its last eight meetings against Duke.
“It’s the best rivalry in sports,” said Sulaimon. “No matter what the record is on each side, the game is going to be a hard-fought one and we knew that coming in.”
The Blue Devils improved to 13-0 this season in front of the Cameron Crazies, who Sulaimon credited with powering the second-half momentum swing.
“The atmosphere in there was insane,” said Sulaimon. “It was so loud in there and we needed every bit of the fans tonight. We were dog-tired out there. We gave it our all. We sacrificed our bodies. Just the energy from the crowd helped us and propelled us to keep pushing and fighting to win for them.”
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