Jon Scheyer scored 18 points and No. 7 Duke beat Georgia Tech 82-70 on Friday night, but not before the Blue Devils allowed most of a 20-point lead to slip away before pulling away in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinal.
"That was as much game pressure as we've had all season long," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You feel like you're in control of the game, and then 3 minutes later, it's crazy. I tried to tell our kids ... 'That's how postseason is. Nobody wants to go away. You have to put them away.'"
Maurice Miller scored 16 points for Yellow Jackets and keyed their second-half rally that cut Duke's lead to two. Miller had eight points during the 19-2 burst that ended when Lewis Clinch's baseline jumper made it 52-50 with 13½ minutes left.
"When you get leads, I thought we relaxed, and they didn't," Krzyzewski said. "And all of a sudden, there was incredible game pressure."
That's when Nelson took over. Kyle Singler stole a pass near midcourt and found Nelson in the left corner, and the Duke captain knocked down a momentum-shifting 3-pointer early in the 19-6 run that gave his team plenty of breathing room.
"One of the things I talked about before the game was the live-ball turnovers," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "That was something we really wanted to stay away from."
Singler's steal "was a big-time play, and it couldn't have come at a bigger time in the game," said Nelson, who finished with nine rebounds and a career-high seven assists. "The way that we play, it really is drive-and-kick — penetrate the defense, collapse the defense and kick out. That is playing to my strength, being the driver, and all the shooters that we have spacing the court out. Those guys get shots."
The Blue Devils went back up by double figures to stay when Paulus' 3 from the left corner made it 64-54, held Georgia Tech to three field goals in nearly 10 minutes and led by 16 late.
Zack Peacock had 13 points, and Charlotte native Anthony Morrow added 12 for the seventh-seeded Yellow Jackets (15-17), who had won five of six since a 71-58 loss to the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium and faced them in the ACC tournament for the first time since losing to Duke in the 2005 championship.
"I thought this team made steady progress. The mistake I made with this team was before the season — we scheduled way (too tough)," Hewitt said of a schedule that included trips to Top 25 teams Connecticut, Indiana and Vanderbilt.
Gerald Henderson finished with 12 points, and Lance Thomas added 10 for Duke, which won its 18th straight game in Charlotte and hasn't lost here since Providence beat the Blue Devils in the second round of the 1997 NCAA tournament.
Playing for the first time since a 76-68 home loss to rival North Carolina six days earlier, Duke entered the tournament determined to prove that last year's first-round loss to North Carolina State was simply an aberration for a proud program that appeared in nine straight ACC title games from 1998-2006 and won seven league championships during that stretch. Seven of the 10 players in the rotation claimed their first postseason victory of any kind with the Blue Devils.
"It's a good win, because it's a step in the right direction for us in accomplishing our goal," Nelson said. "And our goal is to win this thing."
Krzyzewski's team got off to a strong start and seemed to break it open early, with Taylor King's 3-pointer with 7:20 before the break giving Duke its largest lead at 36-16.
Singler, the ACC's rookie of the year, had his streak of consecutive games in double figures snapped at 12 after he picked up two fouls in the first 31 seconds and finished with five points.