Duke Kicks Off Stretch Run With Hard-Fought Win Over Wake Forest

Jason RitchieContributor IFebruary 23, 2009

Duke's new look appears to have righted a ship that seemed to be sinking.

At least for one night.

Sparked by Elliot Williams' defensive efforts early, Duke sprinted to a 22-point lead on the Demon Deacons only to see their lead chipped away and ultimately whittled down to two, before finally putting Wake away and winning 101-91.

It took career highs from both Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer to do it, but it left Dino Gaudio impressed. When asked if he wanted to play the Devils again in Atlanta, he said "Not really. I think they’re pretty good.”

But last night's win is only the beginning of the stretch run for a Duke team that had lost four of its last six conference games, including the last two in a row, after starting the season 18-1 and being ranked No. 1 in both polls.

Unlike the Duke teams of the last two seasons, this year's group looks ready to rebound from a late-season swoon. They were able to turn the Deacons over 20 times and shot 54.1 percent for the game.

Of course, Scheyer and Henderson combining to shoot 19-of-31 (61.3 percent) and scoring 65 points helps the offense look good.

But those two are not the only reason Duke looks ready to make a run in the postseason.

Last year, at this time, Kyle Singler looked physically worn down, something which does not seem to be the case this year. Kyle is averaging 18 points and 6.6 rebounds in Duke's last five games and shows no signs of stopping.

Helping to keep him fresh is the recently rejuvenated play of Lance Thomas. Averaging 26 minutes, 8.25 point,s and 5.25 rebounds in the last four games, Thomas has helped shoulder some of the load for Singler, perhaps most importantly on the defensive side.

But the biggest reason for Duke's turnaround from sinking ship to Final Four contender has been Elliot Williams. The recruit many thought would be Duke's next big star when he signed for the Blue Devils has shown why in his last two games, earning a starting job against St. John's that he does not look to be giving up anytime soon.

Elliot has averaged 11 points on 71.4 percent shooting (10-of-14 from the field) in the last two games. His four steals in the Wake game speaks volumes about the defensive intensity he brings to the table for Duke, considering he was guarding Jeff Teague, one of the most dynamic offensive players in the ACC.

Adding Williams to the rotation adds another athletic slasher to Duke's offensive attack, which has suddenly become much more potent. He also brings an added level of intensity to the defensive attack as well. Just ask Coach K.

"Elliot [Williams] gave us a verve right off the start. In the two games he’s started, he’s really given us a spirit out there," Krzyzewski said.

Duke still has a long way to go to prove that this season will not end the way the last two did. But with their win last night, they seem to be heading in the right direction.

Their road gets no easier from here on out, though.

On Wednesday, they travel up to College Park, where the Maryland Terrapins are coming off their biggest win of the season. And you can believe that Gary Williams and company have not forgotten the 41-point humiliation they suffered at Duke's hands earlier this season.

After that, Duke travels to Blacksburg to face the Virginia Tech Hokies, who at 16-10 overall (6-6 in the ACC) are no doubt looking for a signature win to put on their NCAA resume.

Next Tuesday, the Blue Devils play host to the Florida State Seminoles, on Greg Paulus and Dave McClure's senior day. The Seminoles are currently tied with Duke and Clemson for second in the conference and would like nothing more than to avenge their earlier home loss to the Devils by exacting some revenge in Cameron.

And finally, of course, Duke finishes up their regular-season with an eight-mile trip to Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels will be celebrating Tyler Hansbrough's senior night.

From here on out, every game Duke plays will have major impacts on not just ACC Tournament seeding but potentially on NCAA seeding as well. Every team remaining on the schedule will be playing either to maximize their placement or to even receive a placement, and either way, Duke will be taking everyone's best shot.

This season, Duke may be up to that task.