By John Fanta
NEW YORK — It wasn’t the flashiness of mock draft talk. It wasn’t the first highlight that you see on your Twitter feed.
Yet, it was the most telling result of the season for a young Duke team.
The second-ranked Blue Devils overcame an 8-point deficit with just over 14 minutes on the clock to hand #12 Texas Tech its first loss of the season, a 69-58 Duke triumph.
While top-tier NBA Draft prospects Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are the talk of this Duke team, a “Godsend” emerged for Mike Krzyzewski in what he called a “gutsy performance.”
Freshman point guard Tre Jones was what Krzyzewski called the difference, going for 13 points, 6 steals, 5 assists and 5 rebounds. Just how good was Jones? Krzyzewski compared him to the likes of Steve Wojciechowski, Tommy Amaker and Bobby Hurley. That praise generated a collective “wow” from the media pool.
“Tre (Jones) was the key to the game,” said Krzyzewski. “All of our guys fed off of him. I have never been able to have a player who gives me real-team leadership, the ability to improvise or make reads during a game, rather than out of timeouts. Tre gives me the opportunity to do that.”
“We have’t won a game like this before,” said Jones, whose team started 0-for-14 from 3-point territory and shot 38% from the field on the game. “To be down for most of the game and fight back and stick with the plan, this definitely helped us grow.”
The revelation of the night inside a packed Garden was Duke’s defense. In a season that’s seen blowouts over Kentucky and Indiana, a run-n’-gun win over Auburn and an offensive affair in an 89-87 loss to Gonzaga, we haven’t seen the need for the Blue Devils to close with “D.”
Krzyzewski’s team responded to any defensive questions with a resounding answer, holding the Red Raiders scoreless in the final six minutes and change of the game.
Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard knows what it takes to defend. His team came in leading the country with just 51.2 points per game allowed. He raved about what the Blue Devils did to get stops.
“They’re a really good defensive team,” said Beard. “Yes, they’ve got a Hall of Fame coach and great players. You guys write about the talent and the mock drafts, but they defend. They take you out of what you want to do.”
On a night where the Blue Devils struggled so much from deep, they found transition opportunities. In fact, 16 of their 28 first half points came on the fast break. In total, Duke scored 21 points off 24 Texas Tech turnovers.
“I thought the urgency came out of us tonight, the want to defend,” said Jack White, who hit two of Duke’s three triples in the win. “We knew Texas Tech is a great defensive team, so we just kind of looked at it as a battle of defenses, ‘who wanted it more?’”
Make no mistake about it – the Blue Devils delivered some ooh’s and aah’s at The World’s Most Famous Arena, but the step they took on Thursday night was the biggest yet, and one that could be remembered as a turning point come April.
“This is not a good group,” said Krzyzewski. “This is a really great group of kids.”
Texas Tech validated their 10-0 start in this game. While it didn’t go the Red Raiders’ way, a team that was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 Preseason Poll showed on Thursday night that they can challenge Kansas at the top of the league. In just his third season at the helm, Chris Beard is showing this program can reload, coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season.
“Jarett Culver’s the real deal,” said Krzyzewski of the Texas Tech sophomore. The guard was as advertised, looking like a sure-fire NBA Draft first rounder for next summer. The Lubbock native finished with 25 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Chris Beard talked about his journey to Texas Tech, citing “Duke eye contact” as a common coaching term. He said Jones and Krzyzewski both had it going on tonight, complimenting the connection they have together. An interesting nugget that goes beyond the box score.
Quote of the Night: “We had three kids who are 18 out there,” says Mike Krzyzewski. He jokes, “What the hell were you guys doing when you were 18? If you were 18 now, you’d probably be playing Fortnite.”
Up Next: Duke has a 15-day layoff before their ACC opener against Clemson on Jan. 5. Texas Tech plays their final tune-up hosting Texas-Rio Grande Valley on Dec. 28 before starting league play at West Virginia on Jan. 2.