HOUSTON — Justise Winslow insists his homecoming is strictly a business trip, a mere return to this sprawling city for the Duke freshman forward and his teammates to win the two games needed to advance to next week’s Final Four. Never mind that Friday’s Sweet 16 game against Utah was played just five miles away from St. John’s School, the prestigious high school he attended, or that his father, Rickie, played for Houston's legendary Phi Slama Jama team in the 1980s. Or that he celebrated his 19th birthday Thursday.
“I’m very focused on what this team needs to accomplish,” Winslow said.
Winslow not only took care of his business in top-seeded Duke’s 63-57 victory in the South Regional against fifth-seeded Utah with a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds, but he did it with plenty of panache in front of nearly 100 adoring family members and friends among the lethargic 21,168 fans at NRG Stadium.
His performance also made him just the fifth freshman with at least 10 rebounds in each of his first three NCAA tournament games. Yet his biggest moment came on a hanging jumper with 3:42 left in the game on which he was fouled and converted the free throw to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to nine, putting away the rallying Utes.
"Justise made some big-time plays and timely, timely baskets that kept us in position where we were in control,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Now, Winslow gets another chance Sunday in front of his hometown fans, the ones who screamed “H-Town!” when he was announced as part of the pregame starting lineup. This time it will be for a Final Four berth against second-seeded Gonzaga, a 74-62 winner against No. 11 seed UCLA in Friday night’s first game.
“He’s been locked in even with all the distractions going on here, his family, his birthday,” Blue Devils senior guard Quinn Cook said of Winslow. “It’s easy to get distracted, especially as a 19-year-old freshman. He’s been in his room the whole time just really focusing. When he’s locked in like that, we’re a tough team.”
With Utah double-teaming Duke's 6'11" freshman Jahil Okafor throughout the game, the 6'6" Winslow showed why he’s such a difficult matchup for opposing forwards with his inside-outside offensive game. He finished 8 for 13 from the field, including 3 for 4 from three-point range.
His versatility was perhaps best evidenced by his layup on Duke’s first possession of the second half and his back-to-back three-pointers less than six minutes later during the Blue Devils’ 14-4 run that ballooned their lead to 49-34.
"He just came out firing and was making his shots,” Utah forward Chris Reyes said of Winslow. “We knew this is his hometown and that he’d want to do something special. He played really well.”
But early in the game, Winslow appeared to be nervous and pressed offensively. On Duke’s first possession of the game, he drove to the basket and had his shot blocked as he was knocked to the floor. He lingered, waiting for a foul call, but there was none.
He later missed an alley-oop layup and had a turnover before he calmly sank a three-pointer with 12:36 remaining in the first half for his first field goal of the game. Afterward, he looked back at the Duke bench and flashed a wide grin.
Later in the game, he stared down Utah guard Delon Wright after he bumped him along the baseline and forced him into throwing the ball out-of-bounds. Winslow and Wright also had words in the game’s final seconds before Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak also began barking at Winslow.
“He shows emotion,” Cook said of Winslow. “It does a lot for us. We feed off of him.”
Winslow’s play also made up for one of Okafor’s worst performances of the season. His six points tied his career-low for a Duke team that entered Friday leading this NCAA tournament in points scored in the paint largely because of him.
"We just wanted to get the job done,” Winslow said.
But it wasn’t all business Friday night for Winslow. As he ran off the court after a post-game interview, he stopped to allow more than a dozen adoring fans to take a group selfie with him.
He then headed back to the locker room, but not before four of his former St. John's classmates got his attention from the stands.
"We’ll see you Sunday!” the group yelled.
After all, Winslow still has business to take care of.