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Blue Devil Tyus Jones Ready To Write His Name Among Great Duke Clutch Performers?

In his first performance against UNC, Tyus Jones was great throughout but breathtaking down the stretch.

Feb 18, 2015; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tyus Jones (5) drives against North Carolina Tar Heels guard Joel Berry II (2) in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Feb 18, 2015; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tyus Jones (5) drives against North Carolina Tar Heels guard Joel Berry II (2) in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Duke basketball is missing a hero.

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In the second Duke-UNC game ever played, on Mar. 1, 1920, Trinity College - as Duke was then known - was facing disaster. Although the 1920 Methodists (the Blue Devil nickname was still in the future) were the better team that season, their first meeting with UNC a month earlier in the Ark on the Duke campus (now the East Campus) resulted in a stunning 36-25 upset by the visitors from Chapel Hill.

The rematch on UNC's Bynum Gymnasium was not shaping up any better. UNC led 18-13 with less than three minutes to play. Somehow, Trinity clawed back, cutting the UNC lead to 18-17 with less than a minute to go. How much less than a minute, nobody knew. There weren't any game clocks in that era - just a ref with a stopwatch. He signaled at the one minute mark, but that was the only warning the two teams got.

Somewhere in that last minute, somebody for Trinity converted a field goal to give the visitors a dramatic 19-18 victory. Unfortunately, the name of that hero was not recorded. It might have been William "Skin" Ferrell, who was the Trinity team's best player, but neither the newspaper accounts of the game nor the Chanticleer account of the season reveal who scored the winning basket at UNC.

So we don't know which 1920 player to add to the lost of Duke heroes in the rivalry with UNC. That long list that includes (but is not limited to) John Seward (1946), Dick Groat (1952), Art Heyman (1961-63), Mike Lewis (1966), Freddie Lind (1968), Dick DeVenzio (1969), Robbie West (1971), Mike Gminski (1978) Gene Banks (1981), Johnny Dawkins (1984-86), Robert Brickey (1988) and Quinn Snyder (1988), Christian Laettner (1992), Bobby Hurley (1993), Chris Carrawell (2000), Shane Battier (2001), Chris Duhon (2004), Shelden Williams (2005), Nolan Smith (2011), Austin Rivers (2012) and Jabari Parker (2013).

All of these players either had outstanding games or maybe memorable plays to help the Blue Devils vanquish their most bitter rival.

To that list, you can add another name - freshman guard Tyus Jones.

Wednesday night, with Duke in extremis down seven with barely two and a half minutes to play, Jones scored nine straight points for the Blue Devils - including the game-tying drive that forced overtime.

"Tyus really made some amazing plays for us," Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke pulled out the 92-90 win in overtime.

There's no debating that, but the question we should be asking is whether or not Tyus Jones is on pace to establish himself as one of the great clutch players in Duke history? Not just a Duke-Carolina game hero, but something more - something along the lines of Christian Laettner or Chris Carrawell?

It's difficult to go too far, since Jones has not even played one full season at Duke. It's too early to start ascertaining his spot in Duke's pantheon of clutch players. But I can't think of another freshman who has had that kind of impact.

Oh yes, Austin Rivers hit that remarkable shot to beat UNC in 2012, capping a 29-point night. But how often did he take control of the game and down the stretch and will his team to victory? Duke lost five games by five points or less in '12, including the last two of the season (in the ACC and NCAA Tournament). Rivers wasn't particularly effective in either of those two games.

Bobby Hurley has a more typical freshman experience. His ACC inauguration was bitter as UNC's King Rice schooled him in Chapel Hill - a performance so bad that many people still think Rice "owned" Hurley (when in truth, Hurley more than held his own and even dominated Rice in later meetings).

Laettner, who has to rank as the greatest clutch player in Duke (and maybe NCAA) history, didn't blossom until the NCAA Tournament at the end of his freshman year. His most memorable freshman moment leading up to that breakout was when he missed a potential game-tying free throw against Arizona in the Meadowlands (and was consoled post-game by Duke Law School grad Richard Nixon).

Allow me to take a moment to talk about what we mean by "clutch." Baseball stat nerds have debated this definition for decades. What constitutes a clutch performer - Bobby Thomson hit one of the most clutch homers in baseball history, but does that make him a clutch player? The numbers are equivocal - the sample sizes just aren't large enough to draw firm conclusions.

You can still start a fight in Boston by pointing out that Ted Williams constantly failed to perform in the most important games of his career. Was he not clutch? Or was it possible that his Red Sox played so few really important games that we don't have a fair sample?

In basketball, a guy who hits a game-winning shot gets a lot of credit for being clutch. But there's more to it than that. Laettner hit two of the most clutch shots in NCAA Tournament history. He also added two clutch free throws in the Final Four victory over unbeaten UNLV. More than those instances, he also impacted dozens of other games with clutch play down the stretch of games. As an example, I particularly remember how he broke LSU's back in Baton Rouge with back-to-back 3-pointers with about 2-3 minutes left. He did things like that all the time.

He was the definition of clutch.

That definition - in my mind - is a player who consistently raises his level of performance in a crisis situation.

For Jones, his clutch performances have not been a one-time thing. So far this season, he's usually stepped up when Duke has needed him most.

While he has averaged 11.7 ppg for the season, in Duke's seven games against ranked teams, he's averaged 16.3 ppg. He's shooting 43.1 percent from the floor and 40.2 percent from the 3-point line for the season - against ranked opponents, he's shooting 53.2 percent from the floor and 45.8 percent from the 3-point line.

To those seven ranked opponents, you could add the Florida State game - when Duke had to fight for its life to escape from Tallahassee with a win. In that game, Jones scored 16 points and passed our 12 assists (with one turnover). He scored seven of his 16 points in the last 11 minutes - and more significantly, he assisted on seven of the nine second-half field goals Duke scored (other than his own).

We could also add the St. John's game, when Duke had to rally from a 10-point deficit in the final eight minutes. Quinn Cook actually started the rally, but Jones added a three-point play to cut the margin to 61-57 with seven minutes left. He added 11 points in the final seven minutes to help propel Duke to the win that gave Krzyzewski's his 1,000th victory.

That's clutch.


We first started to see it in the Michigan State game.

As Duke controlled the No. 19 Spartans early, Jones played a very quiet first half, acting as a facilitator and not looking to score. He had three assists and no turnovers at the break, but missed the only shot he took.

Everything changed 11 minutes into the second half, when Jahlil Okafor went to the bench with his fourth personal foul. Michigan State was within 51-48 and seemed to have all the momentum.

Not for long - Jones promptly stole the ball from Brandon Dawson and converted the turnover into a driving layup in transition. After Michigan State missed a 3-pointer, he hit a three at the other end to give Duke a 56-48 lead. In fact, he keyed a 13-3 run that ended with his old-fashioned three-point play. Duke, up 64-51 at that point, was in control the rest of the way.

Jones, scoreless at the half, finished with 17 points, hitting 4-of-4 field goals, 2-of-2 from the 3-point line and 7-of-7 from the foul line - all in the second half (and most of it in the last nine minutes).


Jones stepped up again against No. 2 Wisconsin.

It wasn't just his final numbers - 22 points (7-of-11 shooting), four assists and one turnover. It was again that when the game got close, he took over. With 3:44 left, Duke's lead was cut to 65-60 and the Kohl crowd was going nuts. But Jones scored on a layup to make it 67-60, then fed Amile Jefferson for an easy basket that made it 69-60. After two Wisconsin free throws, Jones hit a jumper to stretch the lead to nine again with under two minutes left. He added two free throws with 23 seconds left in the 80-70 victory.


Against No. 6 Louisville, Jones had a relatively quiet game - 10 points (no 3-pointers), eight assists and two turnovers. But Duke never needed him in that game - the Devils took control early and were never really threatened.

Against No. 2 Virginia, Jones was needed - and he responded.

Duke was down 45-34 when Jones hit the first Blue Devil 3-pointer of the game. But Virginia was still up 57-47 with five minutes left, when Jones ignited Duke's comeback with a three-point play. He later fed Okafor for the tying basket. After Quinn Cook put the Blue Devils up with a 3-pointer, Jones clinched the game with 11 seconds left by nailing a contested 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer.

He finished with 17 points, four assists and one turnover.


In the two games with Notre Dame, Jones had mixed success. In South Bend, he was very solid - 14 points, two assists, no turnovers - but for the only time this season, he didn't step up with the game on the line. He was a non-factor down the stretch.

Jones was also solid when No. 10 Notre Dame came to Cameron.

He had a near perfect game with 12 points (he missed one shot), seven assists and no turnovers. He added five rebounds and a steal. There were no late-game heroics needed as Duke cruised to a 90-60 victory.


Duke had a lot of heroes in Wednesday night's 92-90 overtime victory over No. 15 North Carolina.

Quinn Cook was superb, both with his 22-point effort and his defense on UNC's dangerous Marcus Paige. Jahlil Okafor was the model of courage, playing the entire second half and overtime with an injured ankle. Justice Winslow made some big-time plays down the stretch.

But it was Jones who took control when defeat seemed inevitable. As noted before, he scored Duke's last nine points in regulation. In overtime, Duke was down 87-84 when Jones hit a jumper to cut the lead to one, then came up with a steal and a pass to Cook for the go-ahead basket.

He scored 14 of his 22 points in the last 5:32 of regulation and in overtime.

Clutch much?

"He's good … you start out with that," Krzyzewski said when asked about his freshman point guard.

Then he said something odd.

"One of the reasons we waited three years to get him was that I thought he had special qualities. Not just special talent. It shows up in big games, big moments."

Obviously, the last part of that quote is easy to decipher - Jones does have special qualities … and it does show up in big moments and big games.

But I don't understand what he meant about waiting three years for Jones. Was getting him in 2011 an option? Was he explaining why Duke hasn't recruited a true point guard in the two previous classes? Was he gambling on getting Jones?

Krzyzewski noted that Jones is sometimes reluctant to look for his own shots. Against UNC, the staff got on him when he passed up an open 3. According to Coach K, Jones hit the next one. The Duke coach saw that as a function of unselfishness.

"He would rather have someone else do it," Krzyzewski said. "But when he took the wheel, the car finished in first place."

Tyus Jones' place in Duke basketball history is still to be written. We tend to judge players on their postseason success. Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker had two of the best freshman seasons in school history, yet both tend to be downgraded because their teams went out in the first round of the ACC Tournament.

Jones has a chance to be remembered as one of the great clutch players in Duke history. Certainly no Blue Devil player has done as much in his first 26 games to deserve that reputation.

But he still needs to do it in Greensboro and in the NCAA Tournament beyond to add his name to Duke's all-time great clutch players.