NEW YORK — We’ll start with Zion Williamson, who fouled out. One irate Texas Tech fan screaming from the stands said it best: “We didn’t come to see Duke, we came to see Zion!”
Williamson left the game with four minutes left, spinning in transition, tumbling into a backpedaling Texas Tech defender and garnering an unfortunate charge. Duke would close without its best player in a rough and tumble game against a Texas Tech team that wears ugly as well as anybody. At that point, the Blue Devils led by five, by the end, they won by 11, 69–58. On a loud, legitimate neutral court and grand platform, the Blue Devils took their lumps, got a result and grew up a bit.
Sometimes the Blue Devils needed everybody. Sometimes all they needed was Williamson. (Maybe all anybody really needs is Zion Williamson.)
Duke fought through a game that included 43 turnovers, and in which it made just 3-of-20 three-pointers. “We’d been scoring at a high rate, but we hadn’t played against a defense like theirs,” Mike Krzyzewski admitted. They didn’t have a concrete way to stop Jarrett Culver, who racked up 25 points in a star-making performance. Duke had no room to breathe, watching its own hot start evaporate and the gameflow slip from its grasp, but a second-half comeback against arguably the stingiest team in the country said plenty.
Texas Tech drew four charges in a three-minute span near the outset of the game, one on Williamson, one on R.J. Barrett and two on Cam Reddish, and it was clear from that point on that the Blue Devils would need the other guys. It was Tre Jones (13 points, six steals, five assists and just one turnover amid the chaos) and Jack White (two huge three-pointers and five key rebounds) who wound up flanking Krzyzewski at the podium after the game. If you only knew Duke had three players beforehand, you wouldn’t be mistaken. Nevertheless, the value of a team win in a March-like game in December, going into conference play, was tangible.
The Red Raiders never fully broke, a testament to what they’ve built in a short time, and what might be their toughest matchup of the season, held fast. “They were plugging the gaps a lot,” Jones said. They force baseline and limit open shots better than just about anybody, they are patient offensively, and they do not shoot a ton of threes, which meant fewer long rebounds, which meant fewer opportunities for the Blue Devils to run roughshod in transition. But behind ball pressure and aggressiveness in the passing lanes, Duke asserted itself the whole way. They will not lose many footraces.
Williamson, of course, breaks many basketballing conventions, and his spectacular ability to turn defensive rebounds and blocked shots into clean transition looks for his team is at the heart of what has made Duke so hard to guard. That Duke is an unusually poor jump shooting team matters much less when you factor in all the easy twos and free throws he and Barrett generate on the offensive glass and around the basket. It wasn’t simple. “When you’re a freshman, you haven’t really been coached against,” Krzyzewski said. “Zion and R.J. especially, they’re still learning what really good teams will do to take away your strengths.” Scarily enough, his sentiment leaves open the possibility that they improve.
All in all, it’s one big win, and it may not be worth asking where the safest place is to set Duke’s expectations anymore—that ship sailed before the team even touched down in Maui last month, where a narrow loss to Gonzaga made the breath on their necks a little hotter, and (perhaps thankfully) quelled the undefeated talk for good. The Blue Devils have flaws. But they fought, and screwed up and still earned this one—maybe their first one, when placing the first half of the season into context. Remember that being a title favorite means your odds are most likely, not likely unto themselves. Long-term stakes aside, Duke heads into conference play trending upward, beginning with a home date against Clemson on Jan. 5.