There’s something different about Duke when Amile Jefferson plays.
The intensity picks up. The players play with swagger. Opposing teams struggle to get easy shots.
That showed Saturday night, as Amile Jefferson returned to the lineup after missing the team’s last two games with a foot injury. His presence was felt, especially in the second half, as he was a part of a squad that went on a 20-0 run, which put the Blue Devils up by 10 points.
The players were pumped up as Miami called a timeout. Jefferson screamed along with associate head coach Jeff Capel, as they pushed each other back and forth.
The No. 18 Blue Devils (15-4, 3-3 ACC) had been without that intensity and swagger the past two games, both road losses to top 25 opponents. It was the first time Duke had lost two consecutive conference road games since the 1994-95 season. But it found its swagger again with the fifth-year senior back, and Duke won 70-58.
Jefferson said his foot was hurting after the game, but despite the pain he expects to be ready to go when the team plays N.C. State on Monday.
Jefferson injured his right foot against Boston College on Jan. 7. He practiced for the first time on Thursday.
But Jefferson said he got his first real test when he had to bang against players like 6-foot-11, 220-pound Dewan Huell and 6-10, 231-pound Ebuka Izundu of Miami (12-6, 2-4 ACC).
“I’m good,” Jefferson said after the game. “I’m good with where I’m at. Just got to keep fighting. And that’s for everybody. We just have to keep fighting, through pain, through injuries, through distractions, through everything. Everything has to be background noise. Everyone has to be all in.”
The foot Jefferson injured earlier this month was the same foot he fractured last season and forced him to miss the team’s final 27 games.
But doctors ruled this one a bone bruise.
“I thought it was a lot worse than what it was at first,” Jefferson said. “And it’s been slowly getting better, and I felt good today and so I was ready to go.”
Not many knew prior to warmups that Jefferson would be ready for the game. But he showed up during layup drills and shot a few free throws prior to the game. Duke made the announcement that he would start on its Twitter page about an hour before tip-off.
Jefferson played 34 minutes in his first game back. And Duke needed him. He finished the game with 12 rebounds and five points. The 22-1 run to start the second half proved crucial, because after that Duke never trailed.
After the game, Capel seemed happy to have Jefferson back. He talked about what Jefferson brings to the team.
“He’s the best communicator we have,” Capel said. “He talks nonstop and he’s very, very smart. So he can see things as they’re happening and so he can make adjustments in real time. Some guys you can talk to on the bench but during a break in action.”
“He’s an amazing leader,” Capel continued. “He gives us versatility defensively that we don’t have when he’s not there.”
Capel said because Jefferson is a player who can guard every position, Duke was then able to switch everything, and it took away some of Miami strengths.
“The stat sheet never tells the story of what he does, and the stat sheet is normally really good,” Capel said. “He’s as valuable a guy as there is on any team in college basketball.”
Duke was 17-12 without its captain these past two seasons; it is now 23-3 when he’s on the floor.
“I love Amile on the floor,” senior guard Matt Jones said. “Just his voice and his competitive nature and his fire. You always feel comfortable with him out there, because you know behind our defense, there’s a man back there that’s going to protect our paint.”
Staff writer Jessika Morgan contributed to this report