Limited bigs were no issue for Duke this weekend thanks to veteran Amile Jefferson.
The graduate-student forward grabbed 30 rebounds over the course of Duke’s Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament run, which ended with a championship over No. 21 Rhode Island Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena. The top-ranked Blue Devils dropped the previously-unbeaten URI, 75-65.
Sophomore forward-center Chase Jeter was limited after hurting his ankle on a fall 6 minutes into the game Saturday. Antonio Vrankovic came in immediately to replace Jeter, but Duke ultimately played small by blending freshman guard Frank Jackson in with the starters.
Jackson was named a starter in Sunday’s title game, his first of the year and first for a freshman, leaving Jefferson to man the middle in a small lineup. Jeter played 8 minutes.
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“Amile these last two games has had 15 rebounds each game,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That’s spectacular.”
Jefferson had two double-doubles in as many days to lead a banged-up group to the 19th in-season tournament victory in Coach K era.
He scored four points and grabbed two rebounds, one on each end, less than 2 minutes into Sunday’s contest, the Blue Devils’ third this week.
Jefferson finished with 17 points and led with 15 rebounds, and he had 16 and 15 the previous day against Penn State.
In the second half against URI, Jefferson had an answer for Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin, who had a monster seven blocks. Jefferson crouched down and waited for the contact, drawing the foul on Martin and converting a three-point play. It gave Duke (4-1) a controlled 41-28 lead and kept its offensive momentum turning, which started with five rapid points from sophomore guard Luke Kennard, who played 80 minutes during the tournament. He finished with a game-best 24 points (8-of-11, 4-of-5 from deep) on Sunday.
Jefferson and senior guard Matt Jones were anchors on the floor with not only a limited Jeter, but with a restricted Grayson Allen, who Krzyzewski said was playing at about 50 percent because of a toe issue. Before the game, Allen’s playing status was uncertain. The junior guard finished with 10 points and three assists, becoming the 65th to join Duke’s 1,000-point club.
“(Amile) and Matt played in over 100 games for us, and started over two-thirds of them,” Krzyzewski said. “We couldn’t keep Amile out.”
Jefferson drove up the middle and put one over the tips of Martin’s fingers late in the second for a 12-point lead. Duke led by as many as 18 – on three occasions – after halftime.
“He’s a really good player,” Jefferson said of Martin, URI’s 6-foot-7 senior forward. “I think the best way we dealt with him was when he sat down. When he was in the game, he had an unbelievable impact. He really can touch the ball, that’s why he had seven blocks.”
Kennard, playing extended minutes because of his teammates’ slew of injuries, played until the 2:52 mark of the second half with just one foul. He picked two about 3 seconds apart, then. Jones (13 points), who’d been in second-half foul trouble the previous two games, collected his first at 2:15.
The Blue Devils on Sunday morning watched film of their 78-68 win over Penn State and came away realizing their hands need to be more ready. With Allen not as aggressive on the scoring front, Krzyzewski said it was one of his best passing games.
“(Grayson) even mentioned to (assistant) Jon Scheyer, he said ‘You know, coach, it’s amazing what you can see when you can’t shoot,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “Usually, he’s only thinking about the bucket, so I know Luke and Amile probably a little bit want him to be a little bit injured all the time.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan