DURHAM, N.C. — Duke faced its first big test as a top-ranked team this season, and its three key seniors made sure the Blue Devils passed it.
Seth Curry scored 12 of his season-high 31 points during the late run that helped No. 1 Duke pull away for a 90-77 victory over pesky Santa Clara on Saturday.
Fellow senior Mason Plumlee added 22 points and 13 rebounds for the Blue Devils (12-0).
They needed a huge run late to overcome both a big game from Kevin Foster and a legitimate scare from the Broncos (11-3) and win a physical affair that coach Mike Krzyzewski compared to an ACC game in February.
“We’re going to keep playing teams where our game is their season,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s something that most people never, ever compete against, where you’re always competing against somebody’s best. . At Duke, a lot of teams have free money against us because the story is not us winning — the story is us losing, and that’s the way it’s been for 25 years.”
Foster scored 18 of his 29 points in the first half for upset-minded Santa Clara, and his soaring baseline dunk put the Broncos up 45-41 with 16:30 left.
But the Broncos managed just one field goal over the next 8:30, and that gave Duke just enough of an opening to break this one open.
“I thought we withstood the first 4 minutes (of the half) better than anticipated,” Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said. “They made their charge, we knew it was going to come and we couldn’t stop it, and we had to fight back the rest of the way.”
Curry hit two 3-pointers, then converted three times near the rim during the 26-5 run that gave the Blue Devils a bit of breathing room. Quinn Cook’s steal and layup capped the burst and made it 67-50 with 8:30 to play.
Curry, who was 12 of 18 from the field with four 3s, finished with his best scoring day as Blue Devil but came up short of the 35 he scored against VMI while a freshman at Liberty in 2008-09.
“Our team did a great job of executing in the halfcourt,” Curry said. “Our big guys set great screens, and the few times we got in transition, Quinn kept his head up and found me for some open shots. I was able to score from behind the line and attacking the rim, so I was able to mix it up a little bit.”
Ryan Kelly — the team’s third scholarship senior — had 10 points and 11 rebounds, and Cook finished with 15 points for Duke.
Playing for the first time in nine days — and just the fifth time in December — Duke wasn’t anywhere near its best for much of this one.
The Blue Devils, whose previous two wins as the No. 1 team came by margins of 41 and 22 points, missed 10 of their first 18 free throws, had six shots blocked and were regularly outworked by the Broncos.
But they were good enough when it counted, shooting 51 percent in the second half and finishing with a 40-28 rebounding advantage to reach 12-0 for the 10th time under Krzyzewski and win their 101st straight nonconference game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“You keep getting in fights like this, and you get better,” Krzyzewski said. “You’re going to lose a few fights, but then at the end, hopefully you’re tough enough to win the big fight. My team has fought.”
Evan Roquemore added 17 points while Marc Trasolini and Raymond Cowels III had 10 apiece for Santa Clara, which was playing the No. 1 team for just the second time since 1981 and fell to 0-12 all-time against top-ranked opponents with its first loss in regulation this season.
Yet the Broncos gave Duke fits for about 24 minutes before going cold at the most inopportune time.
Foster, the nation’s top 3-point shooter in 2010-11, had 18 of his team’s first 30 points to single-handedly keep them in this one early, scoring 12 points during a 16-4 run that wiped out an 11-point deficit and put Santa Clara up 30-29.
“I hit a couple 3s, so of course, they were going to start denying me,” Foster said. “They made it hard to get catches. . At the same time, we still made plays and we fed off of that.”