Big leads haven't been entirely safe when Duke and North Carolina State get together at Cameron Indoor Stadium. So even as the Blue Devils went up by 21 points, Mason Plumlee knew the Wolfpack would rally somehow.
"They're too good not to," Plumlee said.
And No. 4 Duke was too good to let its lead slip away.
Plumlee scored 30 points in the Blue Devils' 98-85 victory Thursday night.
Seth Curry added 26 points and Quinn Cook had 21 for Duke (20-2, 7-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), which never trailed, shot 53.8 percent from the field and had to fend off the Wolfpack's late surge for its fourth straight win.
Richard Howell had 15 of his 23 points in the second half for the Wolfpack (16-7, 5-5). Playing their first game this season as an unranked team, they clawed back in it by making 12 of their first 14 shots of the second half.
But N.C. State — the preseason favorite in the ACC — lost its third straight and was denied its first win in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995.
"We (were) getting it handed to us, but I love the way my team fought back," Howell said.
Howell's layup with 5:16 remaining got the Wolfpack within single digits for the first time since the opening minutes at 84-73.
Cook countered with a jumper and Howell picked up his fifth foul on the offensive end with 3:41 left. Plumlee followed with two free throws to make it 88-75.
N.C. State then cut it to eight on Scott Wood's 3 with 1:08 left but Curry hit two free throws with 52 seconds left to make it 95-85 and Plumlee added a dunk to make it a 12-point game.
C.J. Leslie finished with 16 points and Wood had 14 for the Wolfpack, whose previous four conference losses came by a total of seven points.
Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who missed all 10 of his shots in the previous meeting — an 84-76 loss on Jan. 12 that knocked Duke from No. 1 — had 11 points in this one.
Plumlee was 9 of 11 from the field and 12 of 16 from the free throw line while finishing two points shy of the career high he set last week at Wake Forest.
Curry finished with his third straight 20-point game this season and second consecutive huge performance at home against the Wolfpack.
In their last visit to Cameron, they led by 20 points with 11½ minutes left before Curry took over, scoring 21 of his 26 points in the second half to key the Blue Devils' 78-73 win.
N.C. State tried to turn the tables on Duke with a hot second half of its own, but the Wolfpack simply let the Blue Devils get too far ahead in the opening 20 minutes.
"At halftime, that's what I was telling my team — we had them down like this last year, and they came back and beat us," Howell said. "I just wanted to tell my team that to try to keep their heads up and keep them playing in the game, because we were definitely getting ... whupped."
Duke shot 61 percent during a 58-point first half — its highest-scoring half of the season about which coach Mike Krzyzewski said "I don't know if we can play any harder or better."
The ACC's top 3-point-shooting team hit all 10 in the first half — four each by Cook and Curry — and nearly matched its previous season high for a full game, 12, set two months ago against Temple.
"We got good looks, and we had a lot of energy defensively, and that translates to the offensive end," Curry said. "We came out motivated and with a lot of energy, and that showed."
At the other end, N.C. State — which shoots an ACC-best 50 percent — couldn't get anything to fall early and fell way behind. Lewis started 2 of 4, but the rest of his teammates combined to miss their first 11 shots.
"I thought we got some good shots early. We just couldn't make them," coach Mark Gottfried said. "And at the same time we seemed to be struggling, they were on fire."
Cook gave Duke its first 20-point lead when his 3 at the 7-minute mark made it 41-21. Curry's jumper with about 30 seconds left gave the Blue Devils their largest lead, 58-37 at halftime.
Tyler Lewis scored 13 points in place of injured point guard Lorenzo Brown and fellow freshman T.J. Warren had 12 for N.C. State.
A run of injuries left the teams with only a combined 15 available scholarship players.
Brown sat out his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. Duke played without both power forward Ryan Kelly and one of his replacements. Josh Hairston joined him on the bench, out with an infected arm.
"For two teams that have key players out, what a performance by both teams," Krzyzewski said. "That was ACC basketball tonight."