DURHAM, N.C. — For Belmont, it was another matchup with mighty Duke. Another chance at a program-building victory. Another tight game.
And another loss.
No. 6 Duke held off Belmont 77-76 on Friday night in the first round of the EA Sports Maui Invitational after the Bruins erased most of a 16-point deficit but fell one point short against the Blue Devils for the second time in 3½ years.
"When your team can come into Cameron Indoor Stadium and make that kind of a comeback ... and almost win the game, then as I just told (the players), we're no worse a team because we lost by one than we would have been had we won," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "We'd have been a lot happier if we had won by one, but the team's the same. The two points are nothing.
"If that's a Top 10 team and we went on the road in their gym and played them to one point, then we can be a Top 25 team for sure," he added. "I hope they believe that."
Kerron Johnson scored 15 points and Ian Clark added 13 for Belmont (0-1), which shot 47 percent and erased nearly all of a 16-point deficit but fell to 0-3 against ACC opponents.
Austin Rivers — one of three Blue Devils making his college debut — and Seth Curry both scored 16 points.
Duke (1-0), which has just one senior on the roster, shot 43 percent, hit nine 3-pointers and overcame 19 turnovers to avoid its first nonconference home loss since 2000 and put Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski one step closer to history. Coach K moved within one victory of tying Bob Knight atop the Division I men's career list.
"Once the game pressure was on us, we grew up a lot tonight," Krzyzewski said. "You can't practice situations like that. Good teams put you in those situations, and Belmont's just a really good basketball team."
Krzyzewski started his 37th season as a head coach by improving his record to 901-284. He can match his college coach and mentor's record Saturday when Duke plays host to Presbyterian.
Still, Krzyzewski compared the Bruins to the Butler team his Blue Devils beat in the 2010 national championship game because of their depth and maturity.
Mason Plumlee had 13 points and 14 rebounds for Duke, which extended a few winning streaks at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils won their NCAA-best 36th straight home game, their 29th straight home opener and their 87th in a row at home against nonconference opponents.
But this one wasn't at all easy for the Blue Devils.
Belmont, which returns four starters from a team that made its fourth NCAA tournament appearance since 2006, erased most of a 16-point deficit in the second half and pulled to 72-71 on Clark's three-point play with 51 seconds left.
Andre Dawkins followed with a long 3-pointer with about 20 seconds left to put Duke up by four. After Johnson raced down court for a layup with 9.5 seconds left to make it 75-73, Ryan Kelly followed with two free throws with 7.1 seconds left to restore the Blue Devils' four-point lead.
"I think everybody on the floor made a big play tonight," Mason Plumlee said. "It was a collection of guys. We kind of did it by committee, and that's how it's going to have to be. That's a good thing."
Clark hit a 3 at the buzzer.
The latest close call against Belmont kept Krzyzewski on track to break Knight's mark next Tuesday night against Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.
None of the current players were around when the teams met in the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament — when No. 2 seed Duke needed a basket from Gerald Henderson with 11.9 seconds left to beat the 15th-seeded Bruins 71-70 and dodge one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
This Duke team looked at times like a work in progress as it learned to play without three key players who combined for more than half of the team's points last season: Point guard Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, and four-year stars Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Without them, these Blue Devils — whose lone senior is forward Miles Plumlee — looked like the young team they are.
Yet they also showed flashes of potential — such as the 12-0 run early in the second half that gave them their biggest lead. Curry, Rivers and Tyler Thornton each hit 3s during the burst, with Thornton's making it 53-37 with about 14½ minutes left.
"I challenged our guys by saying, 'Their guys are playing better than you are,'" Byrd said. "They're making shots, they're making plays, they're cutting harder. ... They're simply doing things better than you are."
Kelly finished with 12 points and Thornton added 10, including two important free throws that pushed Duke's lead to 72-66 with 1:23 remaining.
Drew Hanlen and JJ Mann each scored 12 and Mick Hedgepeth added 11 for Belmont.