I’ve repeated my theme for this year’s season over and over: different players on different nights.
Well, we all know who’s night it was on Saturday.
No thesaurus has enough adjectives to describe Tre Jones’ performance in that instant-classic comeback against North Carolina. Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is that he has officially earned the “Stones” moniker that made his older brother a Duke legend.
But with Jones’ heroics, there will be a number of performances from the boys in the right shade of blue that will be overshadowed in the historic retelling of this evening. But the impact they might have on Duke’s momentum going forward shouldn’t be so quickly forgotten.
Take Vernon Carey. A decade from now, he will be a mere footnote in this story, having fouled out with over four minutes to go in regulation. Indeed, it was a new look small ball lineup from the Blue Devils that spurred the comeback. But had the Tar Heels not shot nearly 60% from the field in the first half, we might have been talking about a transcendent performance from Carey. Playing against North Carolina’s strength, their front court, Carey had 18 points in the first half. Those points kept Duke within relative striking distance of the hot-shooting Heels, and on a different night could have changed the story of the game altogether.
But perhaps most importantly, even though Carey didn’t score in the second half, he did continue to give the Tar Heel bigs headaches. Thanks largely to Carey, Anthony Bacot fouled out of the contest, and Garrison Brooks was limited with foul trouble of his own. That limited the aggressiveness of both defensively, and facilitated the way Duke attacked the basket in the midst of their comeback.
One other Blue Devil fouled out in the game: Cassius Stanley. But like Carey, Stanley left an indelible mark on this contest. His 22 points were second behind Jones, and despite a frustrating shooting night, the freshman was confident at the free throw stripe, finishing the game 7-of-8. He continued to show that he can be trusted in big-game situations, and the ability to make clutch free throws always determines games in March. His performance shows that Duke has more than just Jones to trust in those scenarios.
Meanwhile, it was two of Duke’s most maligned players, sharpshooters Joey Baker and Alex O’Connell, who made the dream of a comeback into a legitimate possibility. Baker canned a fast break three to cut the lead into single digits with 3:38 remaining in regulation. A minute and a half later, O’Connell made his own three in transition to turn what was once a blowout into a two-possession game. Simply put, the comeback doesn’t happen without those two buckets.
But more encouragingly, both Baker and O’Connell were on the court for a majority of the overtime period. While neither shook up the box score, the fact that Coach K showed that confidence, especially when he easily could have turned to two seniors in Jack White and Javin DeLaurier off the bench, can only be seen as a seal of approval in those two for the stretch run of ACC season.
Finally, no one will forget Wendell Moore when the story of this game is told, for obvious reasons. But what Moore did outside of his game-winner merits its own plaudits. When Duke went to a small lineup, Moore was tasked with guarding either Bacot or Brooks. The pair combined for a single point in the overtime session. Moore also did work on the glass, finishing with ten rebounds, including the all important back-tip on Jones’ missed free throw before his game winner.
But, like Baker and O’Connell, what will likely carry forward from Moore’s performance were moments that won’t be on any highlight reel. Moore’s decision making in this contest was arguably his best so far this season, especially considering that has been the most glaring flaw in the freshman’s game. Moore went 5-for-8 from the field, rarely settling for poor shots, and got to the free throw line 10 times. Meanwhile, in thirty minutes he only turned the ball over twice and committed only two fouls. Both of those statistics have been major bugaboos for Moore, especially since his return from injury. It’s clear now he’s back into a rhythm on the court.
On Oscar Sunday, it’s fitting that we’re still all in awe of a game that seemed like it only could’ve been concocted in a Hollywood writer’s room. It’s also fitting that Duke had a stellar leading man in Jones to drive the plot. But we shouldn’t forget Jones’ supporting cast, not only for making the dream-like comeback plausible, but for providing some encouraging glimpses as to the potential these Blue Devils still have with March mere weeks away.