A conditional statement that has held true for Duke all season: If it’s a big game, then Tyus Jones is playing at his best.
Saturday night’s 84-77 followed that logic as well, as Jones scored 17 of his 24 points in the second half, including a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line as Duke iced the game. And 11 of those points came after a scary bout of back spasms left him crumpling to the court.
"It just tightened up on me," Jones said of his low back. “I just landed funny, kind of on my tailbone, and it just kind of shot up my back—just tightened up on me. I was a little worried."
So were his teammates and coaches. But after a short rest, Jones was back doing what he has done all year.
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Starting with the third game of the season, when Jones scored 12 points against Michigan State after Okafor went to the bench with foul trouble. His first 20-point game of the year came at then-No. 2 Wisconsin. He posted that number again against St. John’s, and his game-sealing 3 at Virginia capped arguably the Blue Devils’ biggest win of the year.
In the first version of Duke-UNC, Jones had nine points in the final 1:25 seconds of regulation to force overtime, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke of Jones’s special qualities (in addition to his talent)—intangibles caused the Blue Devils to make him the only point guard they recruited for three years. And after Jones’s latest big-game masterpiece, Krzyzewski was asked to put his play in context: had the longtime coach ever seen a freshman consistently pace a team when the stakes were highest?
"I’ve seen it from a freshman," Krzyzewski said. "Like (Tommy) Amaker. (Bobby) Hurley.
"Okay. That’s it."
In a few short months, Jones’s play has put him in the conversation with the best point guards Duke has ever produced. All year long, when asked about his uncanny ability to rise to the occasion, Jones has deflected the focus away from his and credited his teammates, saying he feeds off of their confidence in him.
It’s confidence that was earned long before the school year began.
"You’ve obviously got to prove yourself when you’re a freshman," he said. "But at the same time, our upperclassmen came in and told all four of us freshmen to just play our game and be confident. We came to Duke for a reason because all four of us can play a little bit."
That might be the clubhouse leader for understatement of the year.
The tough love during summer conditioning workouts showed Jones that his older teammates were accepting him into the fold. Guys like Quinn Cook provided a shoulder to lean on when workouts got tough, and, at the same time, kept pushing, not letting any of the prized recruits slack off.
"Stuff like that, you know that they have the best interest at heart for you," Jones said.
Jones has consistently rewarded his teammates’ faith in him this season. While the Blue Devils had a strong suspicion to believe his reputation for unflappable poise would continue in college, even they have been impressed by his consistency.
"Every game, every big-time game, he takes it to another level," Cook said. I’m just happy he’s on my team."
And to think at one point there were questions about how Jones and Cook would co-exist. That theory—unlike Jones’s play—faded quickly.