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Ryan Kelly’s career day shows why he makes Duke a title contender

Mar 2, 2013, 8:38 PM EDT

Miami v Duke Getty Images

We heard just before the game today that Ryan Kelly would play for Duke against Miami, but we had no idea that meant he’d put up a career-high 36 points in a  79-76 upset of Miami, the ACC’s top team.

It’s easy to think that Kelly’s importance to Duke has been exaggerated as he sat, nursing a foot injury that has kept him sidelined since January 8. His performance at Cameron Indoor today proves he is every bit the key player his teammates have made him out to be. Kelly hit his first shot – a three-pointer – after just two and a half minutes of play, and he never looked back or looked anything less than fully healthy the rest of the way.

To recap: Kelly was 10-14 overall, 7-9 from deep, and 9-12 from the stripe. He snatched seven boards – six on the defensive end of the floor – and came up with a big steal in the final minute as Miami was setting up for a potential go-ahead shot. Kelly defended everyone from Shane Larkin to Kenny Kadji on a night when most thought he’d make a token appearance as part of a cautious recovery effort.

The stat line tells the tale of why Duke became beatable while Kelly was out, and again looks like a title contender with him on the court. When Miami doubled Mason Plumlee early in the game, Kelly drained the long ball. When the ‘Canes started edging out to harass Kelly’s perimeter shots, Plumlee was able to dunk, board and hit the putbacks he can get easily on single coverage. Defensively, Kelly employed his long arms and quickness to bother shots all over the floor, and he snagged a crucial steal in the final minute that ended an attempt by Miami to tie the game or take the lead.

It’s not a stretch to say that Ryan Kelly is the crucial piece in Duke’s title hopes right now. He’s not the star – tonight’s scoring explosion notwithstanding – but he’s the guy who gives the stars an extra inch or two to operate, and denies that same real estate to opponents. That can be the difference between ending play in March and ending play in April.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

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