ATLANTA — After Duke played what coach Mike Krzyzewski called a "hellacious" non-conference schedule, Ryan Kelly wanted the No. 5 Blue Devils to create momentum for the ACC season.
Kelly scored 21 points, Seth Curry added 15 and No. 5 Duke beat Georgia Tech 81-74 on Saturday.
Duke (13-2, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) avoided consecutive defeats for the first time since Feb. 11 and Feb. 15, 2009.
"It's a new lease on life, really," Kelly said. "We were all 0-0 in coming into today and we're 1-0 now. That's all that matters. Everything else is done, and we've got to focus on the ACC."
Glen Rice Jr. scored a season-high 28 points, matching a career high, and Mfon Udofia finished with 19 for Georgia Tech (7-8, 0-1 ACC). The Yellow Jackets, who never led, have lost four straight.
Kelly was 14 of 14 from the free-throw line, including eight in the final 40 seconds to help seal the victory.
Following Wednesday's five-point loss to Temple, Krzyzewski started freshman Quinn Cook at point guard instead of Tyler Thornton and reinserted senior forward Miles Plumlee in the lineup in favor of Kelly.
Freshman Austin Rivers, who began the game with a team-best 15.1 scoring average, scored eight points on 3 of 10 shooting, but gave the Blue Devils a boost after missing a pair of free throws with 3:26 remaining and his team leading 68-66.
After forcing a runner that missed, Rivers stole the ball from Mfon Udofia and scored a fastbreak layup to make it 70-64 that energized the Duke bench and put a smile on the face of his father, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who was watching from the seats.
"For him to make those two plays after really not having a good game — he missed a layup and we missed two layups there when we had a 10-point lead — he showed toughness," Krzyzewski said. "That's a huge play."
The Blue Devils took a 72-66 lead with 1:08 remaining when Curry bounced a lob pass off the glass for an assist that Mason Plumlee converted for a layup that made it 72-66.
"Guys made some big plays to help us win," Curry said. "It showed a lot of toughness on the road in the ACC, and that's what we need."
Krzyzewski was pleased with how Cook responded in his first career start. Cook, who handed out a game-high five assists and scored 10 points, said the coach told him about the lineup change in practice two days ago.
He was ready to meet the challenge after his nerves finally settled down.
"I just got good advice from Tyler," Cook said. "He told me to stay ready, stay sharp, and once I got that first shot on the first play, I knew it was going to be a good day."
Mason Plumlee's three-point play at the 8:07 mark of the first half gave Duke, which began the game shooting nearly 71 percent from the field, its biggest lead at 18.
But the Blue Devils didn't score another field goal in the first half after Andre Dawkins' 3-pointer from the right corner made it 36-24 with 4:07 remaining.
"We had a chance to go 20 to 25 up," Krzyzewski said. "We had open looks and when we didn't knock those down, I thought we showed a lack of experience. I think we came down on the defensive end still thinking about the wide-open shot we missed. Once Rice got going, I thought Tech got going. He's a high level player. He made some shots when I thought we had good defense on him."
Georgia Tech closed the first half on an 11-4 run that included Pierre Jordan's alley-oop, fastbreak pass to Jason Morris for a right-handed dunk in front of Mason Plumlee at the 1:22 mark.
The Yellow Jackets outrebounded Duke 38-26 and were led by Rice's eight. Duke outscored Georgia Tech 18-10 in points off turnovers.
Rice has been through a strange first eight weeks of the season. As a returning starter in coach Brian Gregory's first year at Georgia Tech, Rice was suspended for the first three games after breaking a team rule and has lately been used in a reserve role.
He went scoreless in a Dec. 29 loss at Fordham and followed that with just five points in a 73-48 home loss Tuesday to Alabama. Against Duke, however, he hit 10 of 17 shots from the field, including 4 of 7 on 3s. Rice played 32 minutes, third-most on the team.
"We're asking Glen to do something that's so different from what he's ever been asked to do," Gregory said. "And we're asking him to be dependable in doing that because he just can't (only) score. He needs to rebound for us. He needs to create baskets for other people."
Krzyzewski liked the resolve his team showed when the Yellow Jackets closed within two with 3:44 remaining. Morris hit a 14-foot jumper from the right side just as Duke switched from man-to-man defense to a zone.
The coach indicated the starting lineup is still in flux. Duke will return to practice to prepare for Thursday at home against Virginia. Kelly played 27 minutes, 10 more than Miles Plumlee, who finished with seven points and three rebounds before picking up his fourth foul with 8:36 left in the game.
"There's a lot of stuff happening with our team, but I thought we really showed some toughness," Krzyzewski said. "When it got down to two points and Rice is putting up shots like that, to win a game down the stretch like that is very important for the development of our kids."