Duke keeps pregame promise to Reddish, who missed Virginia Tech game with knee injury

With his knee ailing, Duke freshman Cam Reddish debated whether or not to play in the Blue Devils’ NCAA tournament regional semifinal game against Virginia Tech.

His star classmate told him not to worry.

“He was kind of skeptical on whether he wanted to play,” Duke star Zion Williamson said. “I was like, ‘Cam, as a brother, if you can’t go out there and play, you won’t be letting us down because I know if you could play, you’d be out here with us. You’re not letting me or any of your other teammates down. If you got to sit out, we got you, man. We’re not going to lose this for you.’”

And so the decision was made just minutes before tip-off that Reddish, the Blue Devils’ third-leading scorer at 13.6 points per game, would not play. Without him, top-seeded Duke held off the Hokies 75-73 on Friday night.

Reddish was a full participant in Duke’s practice Thursday, but felt something wrong during pregame warmups.

“He just had something wrong with his knee. He was limiting,” Krzyzewski said. “But we didn’t find out until right before the game.”

The decision weighed on Reddish, his teammates said.

“His demeanor wasn’t the same. You could just see it. I always look at my brothers’ expressions and when I saw him he wasn’t Cam. I was very worried,” Williamson said after the game.

Said fellow freshman RJ Barrett: “I know it hurts. I know he wants to play and we need him to play, but his health is really what’s most important.”

Like Williamson and Barrett, the 6-foot-8 Reddish is expected to be an NBA lottery pick.

Reddish had played in 35 of the Duke’s first 36 games, missing the Blue Devils’ loss vs. Syracuse due to illness. Reddish was in the training room after the game and did not speak to reporters. His status for Sunday’s East Regional final against No. 2 seed Michigan State is uncertain.

It was not the first significant absence the Blue Devils have had to endure this season. Williamson missed five games late in the season after spraining his right knee in the first minute of Duke’s Feb. 20 game against North Carolina.

Point guard Tre Jones missed parts of three games due to a separated shoulder during ACC play. Center Marques Bolden missed Duke’s three wins on the way to an ACC tournament title with a sprained knee.

Forward Jack White missed the first two games of the NCAA Tournament with a torn hamstring. White played less than three minutes Friday night against the Hokies. He said he is about 80 percent healthy.

Without Reddish, the Blue Devils turned to sophomore Alex O’Connell, a 6-foot-6 guard who started five games when Williamson was out of the lineup. O’Connell has seen his playing time ebb and flow throughout the season, playing 34 minutes on two occasions and not playing in the Blue Devils’ 77-76 second-round NCAA Tournament victory over Central Florida last Sunday.

He said the plan was for him to play against Virginia Tech. Starting, however, was unexpected.

“It was quick notice for sure,” he said.

The news arrived via committee with Williamson, Barrett and assistant coach Jon Scheyer delivering the news.

“That gave me a little confidence boost because they had faith in me,” O’Connell said. “And it really helped me pick up my game.”

O’Connell scored four points on 2-of-6 shooting, including 0-for-4 from 3-point range, in 35 minutes. O’Connell pulled down a team-high seven rebounds, all on the defensive end. Virginia Tech still grabbed 17 offensive rebounds in the game.

“I was just trying to make sure I rebounded,” O’Connell said. “Offensive rebounding is something we struggle with giving up sometimes. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t allow my man to out-rebound me.”

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or