Before the ACC Championship game, someone asked Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger if the Irish were happy to play Duke.
“Oh man, we want them,” he said.
Be careful what you ask for because tired or not, four games in four days or not, Duke was ready for Notre Dame.
Not that it was easy.
Duke shot very well for having played four games in four days - 60.8% - but struggled with turnovers, especially in the second half when a flurry of them threatened to hand the game to Notre Dame. Duke finished with 12, double Notre Dame’s six and Notre Dame made them count. Think of it this way: Duke needed to shoot 60% (a season high) to beat this team.
That’s how tough it was to beat the Irish.
Consider for a minute what Duke did here.
Clemson was playing for its life. Check.
Louisville could easily - easily - be a Final Four team.
UNC is seen by many as the favorite overall.
And after that, after running those three gauntlets, this team had enough in the tank to beat a Notre Dame team that played brilliant, beautiful basketball? Really?
When Jason Capel interviewed his brother Jeff, he made a point to talk about what this team had to go through, with all the injuries and some of the ugliness of this season that was in particular aimed at Grayson Allen.
After the Elon game, on a hunch only, we suggested that there might be other things going on in his life that led to that situation.
We don’t know if this was it, but it would be impossible to go through a situation like this and not be affected. Remember Eric Montross and how close he got to a terminal cancer patient? It just about ruined his season (and made a lot of Duke fans think more highly of him too for his care for that kid).
But we digress.
Duke won this game, as Jayson Tatum said, on heart. Duke showed great heart all week and never more than when the Blue Devils fell behind 56-48 in the second half with 11:36 left.
Duke could easily have given up because Notre Dame was surging and Bonzi Colson - Colson was absolutely sensational.
He’s an amazing player. It’s hard to believe that he’s only 6-5 and that he can play inside and outside as well as he can. What a talent.
As well as Duke played, Notre Dame was right with them. When Duke fought back and took the lead 61-60, the Irish were up to it. That team has guts too.
When Duke was up 65-62, Colson hit a huge three to tie it right back up. Can we agree with Dick “Hoops” Weiss here?
He’s the most unique big man in the country. And he’s just 6-5!
Right after that though Jayson Tatum happened.
Well, Tatum and Matt Jones.
Tatum was fouled by Colson and split his free throws. Then he blocked a shot, picked the ball up and scored on the other end.
Friday we said this about Jones:
There is a wild card no one has really talked about much this weekend and that’s Matt Jones.
Unlike almost any of Duke’s key players, his minutes have declined in every game.
It’s probably a combination of things. He certainly hasn’t shot well lately. He had 10 points vs. Wake Forest on February 18th and since then he’s hit for 3,4,5,0,6,0 and 2 points.
Like just about everyone else, he may have an injury to deal with, one that Duke may not have disclosed (Duke typically doesn’t talk about injuries).
We just don’t know.
What we do know is this: Matt Jones is a gamer. He’ll give everything he has to his team. And in a game like this, at some point, we will see Jones make a critical play. He’ll knock a ball loose or dive on the floor at a key point.
Whatever Jones has, he’ll give. Don’t overlook him.
Well we didn’t mention a shot but we’ve seen this guy long enough to know that if he had a chance to influence the outcome, if there was a key play, he was very likely to be involved in some way.
It was 68-67 when Tatum passed Jones the ball for a three.
Jones, who scored six points against Clemson, none against Louisville and two against UNC, didn’t hesitate. He nailed the clutch shot. He made that critical play.
The senior came through.
After a VJ Beachem dunk with :32 left, he cam through again, making a pass to a streaking Tatum for a dunk.
Yes, that was Jones on the in-bounds making a key play.
Tatum was fouled on his dunk and hit the free throw to put Duke up 74-69.
Notre Dame ultimately put Luke Kennard on the line (they had to foul three times to do it though) and he split to put the Devils up 75-69, meaning that the Irish needed to hit two shots to tie and three to win. That’s a very good, very tough team, but they weren't up to pulling that off.
Rex Pflueger missed a three and Matt Farrell rebounded and gave it to Steve Vasturia, who also missed.
The final rebound of the game?
It went to Jayson Tatum.
After the game, the MVP Award went to Kennard though a lot of people thought that Tatum should have won it. The vote takes place before the end of the final game though. It might have been a different story otherwise.
You can’t really talk about those guys though without also mentioning Amile Jefferson.
When Justise Winslow showed up, Jefferson had been a starter. He had no problem coming off the bench because it helped his team. If they asked him to do it again he would without hesitation.
Don’t think this doesn’t play a role in Allen’s willingness to come off the bench now, or Harry Giles too for that matter, because it does.
He and Jones are the ultimate team players. They’ve had amazing careers at Duke. When people look back years from and see relatively modest stats from Jones and a career interrupted by injuries for Jefferson, they might be tempted to think they were average players.
Do set them straight. Both of those guys are absolute winners and nothing but. Duke would not have won the national title in 2015 without them and there’s not a chance they would’ve won the ACC Tournament in 2017 without them either.
Neither one is going to get his jersey retired but you’ll see both in the Hall of Honor soon enough.
When Mike Brey was hired, some idiot columnist named (ahem) Skip wrote that he was a vanilla pick, that by hiring the Delaware coach, the Irish were settling for mediocrity.
Well after watching that epic Kentucky game a few years ago and a bunch of great ACC games, not to mention specifically Duke games, it’s safe to say: what. an. idiot.
Brey has built an amazingly powerful, subtle and resilient program. It’s as impressive as any program in the country, it stands alone in its ability to develop players and to move them seamlessly into more and more important roles as the years go by.
Nobody has built a more remarkable program than Mike Brey. As Duke fans who admired him as a Duke assistant, we’re really happy that he’s done such a brilliant job.
And that he’s made that idiot columnist eat his words too.
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