- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Kyrie Irving was standing in the midcourt circle, all by his lonesome, as everyone waited for the signal from the scorer's table to begin the second half.
Irving shuffled his feet back and forth a couple of times and kept looking off to his left, in the direction of his bench and the supporters sitting directly behind it, with a look of firm but calm determination on his face.
And you couldn't help but wonder, what must be going through his mind?
Irving's team, Duke -- ranked No. 1 in America -- was locked in a fierce battle, score tied at 33, with Butler, the team it defeated in last season's national championship game.
Irving didn't play in that game. He was still in high school, at St. Patrick in Elizabeth, N.J. But he was in the middle of this one, literally -- one of the most talked-about games of the college basketball season so far, and it was being held at the Izod Center, about 18 miles from his hometown of West Orange.
The freshman had set the college basketball world abuzzing after his scintillating 31-point performance in a win over No. 6 Michigan State on Wednesday. Everyone in the building -- including many family members and friends among the 14,215 fans -- was eagerly anticipating how he would perform on this stage Saturday.
But in the first half, the budding star was bedeviled. He picked up two charging fouls within the first nine minutes and finished the half with as many turnovers as points (four).
So with the second period about to begin, seeing the look on Irving's face at center court, you got the feeling you were going to see a different player this time around. The shots might not fall, but Irving was going to leave his stamp on this game, one way or another.
And he certainly did. Irving nailed his first shot -- a 3-pointer -- just 32 seconds in, giving Duke a 36-35 lead. In fact, he scored the Blue Devils' first seven points after intermission. And he ended up pouring in 17 points in the second half, propelling the Blue Devils to an 82-70 win over the Bulldogs.
"The other two kids from New Jersey that we've had -- [Bobby] Hurley and Jason Williams -- and Kyrie, they all had special qualities," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. "Bobby played for his dad, who is one of the greatest coaches of all time. Jason -- Jason just had a knack. When the lights went on, he took it to a whole 'nother level. And this kid's got it."
That's mighty high praise, coming from a coach who tied Adolph Rupp for the third-most wins in NCAA Division I history Saturday -- and being compared to the NCAA's all-time leader in assists (Hurley) and a player who scored 2,079 points in just three years at Duke (Williams).
Irving set the tone for Duke early in the second half, but his biggest two shots actually came later on, when Butler had cut a 10-point deficit to three, 60-57. On the very next possession, Irving had the ball at the point and noticed that his defender was going to play behind a ball-screen coming his way. He made the correct read, stepped back and nailed a 3.
The next time Duke had the ball, Irving threw in another trey for good measure, effectively snuffing out Butler's comeback flame.
The freshman admitted after the game that he felt a little extra pressure, playing so close to home. "Yeah definitely. I definitely was pressing in the first half a little bit," Irving said. "But in the second half I wanted to come out aggressive."
And he did. The only downside being he injured a big toe on a drive late in the second half. Irving had to leave the game briefly but returned. After the game Irving said he felt fine, but Krzyzewski said they'd know more about the injury later Saturday.
All in all, though, it was a very happy homecoming for Irving, who wouldn't even venture a guess as to how many friends and family were in attendance.
"It feels good," Irving said. "When I landed at Newark Airport, I was really excited. I love New Jersey. This is where I'm from. So coming here to the Meadowlands -- I won a state championship here my junior year, so coming back here feels good."
Maybe the only thing Irving didn't feel good about was his postgame interview. ESPN's Doris Burke wanted to talk to Irving after the teams were done shaking hands, but Irving spoke with his coach about it first.
"He was held up to be interviewed," Krzyzewski said, "and he came back and said, 'Coach, they should have interviewed Nolan [Smith, a senior who scored 24 points].' And I said, 'Nah, they should interview you, you're coming back home.'
"He's a beautiful kid."
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