CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Kyrie Irving stole the inbound pass and sped downcourt toward the helpless Hampton defender under the basket. He leaped for a layup with his right hand, then switched to his left in mid-air.
Duke’s electrifying point guard sure didn’t look like he hadn’t played since December. And if he keeps producing highlights like this, his Hall of Fame coach will take care of two milestones in a matter of days.
Irving scored 14 points in his first game in three months, and top-seeded Duke routed 16th-seeded Hampton 87-45 on Friday in the second round of the West Regional for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 899th career victory.
“I haven’t played in three months, so this game was really nerve-racking,” Irving said. “But once I got the butterflies out, I started to play really well.”
Andre Dawkins added 13 points, Mason Plumlee had 12, Kyle Singler finished with 11 and Miles Plumlee had 13 rebounds for the Blue Devils (31-4), who never trailed and shot 53 percent. They dominated from the start, winning their fourth straight and advancing to a third-round matchup with No. 8 seed Michigan (21-13) on Sunday.
Most of the attention surrounding this one centered around Irving, whose return adds another elite player to a Blue Devils roster already full of them.
After Irving injured the big toe on his right foot on Dec. 4, the Blue Devils prepared for life without him for the rest of the season. He worked out in public last week before an ACC tournament game, fueling speculation that he might return. Initially, Krzyzewski downplayed the possibility before acknowledging it earlier this week and then pronouncing him ready to play limited minutes.
“A guy with his talent, him at 70 percent is better than a lot of guys at 100 percent,” Dawkins said.
Irving checked in with 15:19 left in the first half to a standing ovation from the Duke fans. Perhaps trying to do too much too soon, he was whistled for charging on his second trip downcourt, and his first shot—a wild up-and-under layup—wasn’t close.
“I was pressing a little bit instead of letting the game come to me,” Irving said.
On his next shift, he showed he’s just as quick as before. Irving burst down the left side of the lane, drew a slap on the arm from Kwame Morgan and tumbled to the court—only to pop right up, unaffected, and knock down two free throws.
And once he found his rhythm from the field, he was nearly impossible for Hampton to stop, scoring on a pair of authoritative drives to the rim before hitting 3-pointers on consecutive trips downcourt in the final 2 minutes.
“The thing I was worried about was just staying out there and keeping up with everybody,” Irving said.
Turns out, down the stretch, the Pirates were the ones who had trouble keeping up with him.
“He’s a lottery pick,” Hampton coach Edward Joyner Jr. said.
Perhaps overlooked in the obsession with Irving’s toe was the latest career accomplishment for their Hall of Fame coach.
Coach K moved one win from joining Bob Knight as the only Division I men’s coaches with 900 career victories. He can tie his mentor and former coach at 902 wins if the Blue Devils win the West Regional final and clinch their 12th Final Four berth under him.
A victory in Houston would not only put Duke back in the national championship game, it would leave Krzyzewski alone atop the wins list.
Krzyzewski’s 100th NCAA tournament game at Duke ended like so many of the ones before it—in lopsided fashion.
Duke was up by double figures before Hampton managed its first rebound, opened the game on a 16-4 run and never let up while essentially putting the Pirates out of it at halftime. The Blue Devils bridged the halves by reeling off 14 straight points, then made it a 30-point game on Nolan Smith’s dunk with just under 16 minutes to play. By then, they were well on their way to their 15th straight NCAA tournament win in the state of North Carolina.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion Hampton (24-9) had its five-game winning streak snapped. Its top three scorers—Darrion Pellum, Morgan and Charles Funches—were a combined 9 for 29.
“Sometimes the awe of the moment gets to you,” Joyner said. “We missed defensive assignments. We threw the ball away. We missed a bunch of layups. They (Duke) don’t do that.”
Pellum finished with nine points, roughly half his average, for Hampton. A decade after the Pirates pulled one of the biggest shockers in the history of the tournament—upsetting then-No. 2 seed Iowa State in the first round as a No. 15—the Pirates were never a threat to one-up themselves by becoming the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1.
“Every college team (watches) TV and says, ‘I want to play Duke, I want to see what it’s like to play Duke,”’ Joyner said. “We sure found out.”