HOUSTON—Behind the Duke bench Sunday, a fan held a handmade sign that read “Justise Is Served.”
The play on words was a nod to Blue Devils freshman forward Justise Winslow, a native of this sultry city. Yet for most of his top-seeded team’s game against No. 2 seed Gonzaga, the 6’6”, 225-pound freshman didn’t live up to his growing fanfare. He couldn’t get his shots to fall, was being exploited defensively by Gonzaga junior forward Kyle Wiltjer and was less active in rebounding than usual. His play had been so uninspiring that when the media voted for the South Regional’s most outstanding player with about five minutes remaining, he didn’t make many ballots.
Yet Winslow remained unfazed as Duke’s lead dwindled with a 12th trip to the Final Four at stake for his coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
“I just tried to stay aggressive,” Winslow said.
And it paid off when the Blue Devils needed their emerging star most, as he scored seven of their final 13 points to put away Gonzaga in a 66-52 win before a hometown crowd of 20,744 at NRG Stadium. He finished with a game-high 16 points on just 4-of-12 shooting, but was 6 of 6 from the free-throw line, four of which came in the final five minutes.
“I just tried to step up,” Winslow said, “and live in the moment.”
In doing so, the versatile forward demonstrated again that Duke is far more than just star freshman center Jahlil Okafor, a national player of the year candidate, whom he outplayed in the Blue Devils’ two victories here. Even more impressively, Winslow thrived under the added pressure of playing in front of approximately 100 family members and friends, including his father, Rickie, who was part of of Houston’s legendary Phi Slama Jama teams in the 1980s. It was a fitting celebration for Winslow, who turned 19 Thursday.
A talented scorer who can drive, hit jumpers and flourishes in transition, Winslow averaged 18.5 points and 7 rebounds in his two games back home. The most frightening aspect of his game for Michigan State, Duke’s opponent in the Final Four on Saturday, is his improving three-point accuracy. He was 5 for 8 from beyond the arc. Winslow has been creating matchup problems for opponents all season with his combination of size and speed, and Duke will need two of his best games to win a fifth national championship under Coach K.
“He had a great tournament,” Krzyzewski said of Winslow. “It doesn’t surprise me. Justise is a very special young man, not just a special basketball player.”
How Winslow shook off his slow start Sunday is evidence of how much he has matured the last couple of months. In January, he had a stretch of four straight games in which he failed to record more than seven points and was even held scoreless in a blowout loss against Miami.
But as Winslow struggled Sunday, he kept reminding himself of what Duke senior point guard Quinn Cook has impressed upon him all season: “Stay aggressive, stay aggressive.”
Winslow kept that mindset even when Wiltjer cut Duke’s lead to 53-51 with 5:43 left on a free throw and then uncharacteristically missed a wide-open layup on Gonzaga’s next possession. During Duke’s ensuing possession, Winslow took over.
After attacking the basket and being fouled on a shot by 7’1” Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski, Winslow calmly made two free throws. On Duke’s next possession, he grabbed fellow freshman Tyus Jones’s missed three-point attempt and was fouled on his putback attempt before making two more free throws to put his team ahead 57-51 with 3:38 left.
He followed those free throws by grabbing a defensive rebound and hitting a dagger three-pointer on the other end as part of seven straight points. After the shot, he turned to the crowd and screamed in exhilaration on the way to being named to the all-region team. (Jones was the region’s most outstanding player.)
“Coach had a lot of confidence in me,” Winslow said. “He ran a good amount of plays going to me. My teammates just the whole year they’ve been giving me confidence. I’ve had times where I couldn’t buy a bucket.”
His early struggle to find his stroke wasn’t the scariest part of the game for Winslow. With 12:14 left in the first half, he sprained his ankle on a drive to the basket that ended with him landing awkwardly on the floor. He came out of the game and was tended to by Duke’s training staff before returning just over two minutes later. After the game, he admitted that he rolled his ankle “pretty bad” and that it was a “little stiff, little sore” when he returned.
But by the time Winslow was cutting down the net with his teammates after the game, the pain appeared to be gone. As he stood on the ladder with his piece of the net, he pounded his chest twice and made a Hook’em hand gesture, which he said later was a salute to his hometown. “It was just a surreal moment,” Winslow said.
Later as he walked off the court cradling Duke’s regional championship plaque, he screamed “H-Town!” But not before he yelled, “Two more games!”
After all, he’s heard just how difficult it is to win a national championship. His father was a member of Houston’s 1983 team that reached the national title game but lost in one of the NCAA tournament’s most iconic moments—when North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles dunked a game-winning basket at the buzzer.
“I’ve just been very blessed with a lot of good opportunities,” Winslow said. “I’m just trying to make the most of them.”
And in the process, he’s served something else this NCAA tournament—notice of his budding stardom.