Late in Duke’s 85-56 win over Robert Morris, Matt Jones was trying to pay attention to coach Mike Krzyzewski in the team’s huddle. At that point, the Blue Devils had weathered the Colonials’ second-half surge and held a 20-point lead.
But then Jones heard the crowd booing. And he looked up – and saw highlights from Mercer’s 2014 round of 64 win over Duke on the video board.
“I thought, dang, they won’t let it go,” Jones said before flashing back to the present. “To come out and win the way we did, we flushed it.”
There were some, “not again” moments in Duke’s win. After a hot start, the Blue Devils got reality checks from two different sources – Krzyzewski and then Robert Morris.
Ten minutes into the game, it looked like it would be a nondescript blowout by a No. 1 seed over a No. 16 seed. And it stayed that way until the 15:21 mark of the second half, when Jahlil Okafor decided to get fancy, driving to the wide-open basket, going for the reverse, two-handed dunk – and missing.
Instantly, Krzyzewski jumped up from his seat on the bench and gestured for Marshall Plumlee to enter the game. Less than a minute later, Krzyzewski called a timeout to make the substitution happen.
“It was kind of like everybody just stopped,” Jones said after the Okafor miss (everyone, that is, expect Robert Morris, as Lucky Jones scored on the other end). “I just looked straight at Coach K, and to see him like that – I haven’t seen him that mad at Jah since practice. To see the sense of urgency on his face and the intensity, it was a little scary. I knew he was going to let us have it in the timeout.”
And he did, as the timeout huddle that ensued included many words not fit to print in this family publication. Rest assured that Krzyzewski wasn’t pleased with his team losing focus and discipline, up 54-34.
“You can’t do that. That’s the easy message,” Krzyzewski said in laconic fashion.
And then, with Okafor benched, Robert Morris went on a 10-0 run, momentarily renewing the hope of another massive March upset.
“Me, personally, I was saying to myself not again,” Jones said.
But just as suddenly as Duke had lost its mojo, Justise Winslow single-handedly summoned it back. It was as if the talented freshman had snapped awake from a slumber, realized what was happening and decided enough was enough.
Coming out of the under-12 media timeout, Winslow hit a 3 to give Duke a 59-46 lead. On the next possession, he collected a defensive rebound and drove it down the length of the floor for a transition layup. Then he did it again, grabbing the ball off the defensive glass and taking it down the floor, finding Tyus Jones open in the corner for a 3. The rest of his teammates joined in – Okafor finished inside and Marshall Plumlee threw a 3/4-court outlet pass that resulted in an Amile Jefferson lay-up, and, just like that, it was a comfortable Duke lead again, 68-46, just three minutes and 15 seconds later.
Winslow has been a bellwether for Duke this year – when he is engaged, the team is near its zenith, tempting fans to book tickets to Indianapolis right that instant. And when Winslow is either hurt (see the N.C. State and Miami games) or not quite focused, that’s when the Blue Devils start to slip.
If the Blue Devils needed a reminder that they are, in fact, mortal, and not predestined to wind up in the Final Four, they got it Friday night. There was no repeat of the loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinal, no sleepwalking through the first half – on the contrary, Duke went into the locker room up 42-25. And, thanks to the reboot in the second half, there would be no early exit.
No, in the end there would be a dominant, lopsided Duke win – just as most everyone expected, even if it wasn’t smooth sailing for all 40 minutes.
“The jitters should be gone by Sunday,” Jones said, “And we should be a better team by then.”