HOUSTON—Utah executed coach Larry Krystkowiak’s game plan pretty effectively. After all Duke’s top two scorers were held significantly under their season averages.
But then there was Justise Winslow. The Houston native scored 21 points in his homecoming game, and he was the main reason Duke advanced to the Elite Eight with a 63-57 win over the Utes.
"That’s what makes Duke, you know, Duke," Krystkowiak said, reflecting on limiting Quinn Cook and Jahlil Okafor. "They’ve got some other guys that rose to the occasion tonight, made some big plays, but I thought (Winslow) coming back to Houston the day after his birthday, made him juiced up and ready to go. We didn’t have an answer."
Krystkowiak and the Utes didn’t want Winslow to beat them by driving to the basket, so they sagged off of him, knowing that could open up space at the 3-point line. And Winslow nailed three of them. Clearly at ease in the cavernous NRG football Stadium, Wislow went 3-for-4 from deep—every other shooter in the two games played in the venue Friday (including ULCA and Gonzaga) went 10-for-53 (18.9 percent).
"I felt very comfortable at out there, looking out in the crowd and seeing so many familiar faces, seeing my family behind the bench," Winslow said. "I was very fortunate, very blessed to be in that opportunity.
All of the added elements of a homecoming game—ticket requests, people to see—didn’t add pressure on Winslow. He thrived off of the opportunity to play in front of, by his estimate, 100 friends and family that he knew personally.
"I knew he was ready. I could feel it," said Amile Jefferson, Winslow’s roommate on the road. "He was excited to be home, but not excited in a way that it was going to take away from the game. It helped him lock in to the game, where he knew he could be that player.
"I'm so happy for him, to have a performance like that in front of his home crowd. With his birthday yesterday, that's big-time for a guy who is only 19 years old."
And it was Winslow who made the play of the game for Duke at the most critical time. Jefferson had thrown down a momentum seizing dunk—"I think I got the sweet spot on the floor, that’s about it," Jefferson said of his one dribble and two-handed finish—that forced a Utah timeout with 8:51 left, Duke up 47-34. But then the Utes went on a 9-0 run to cut the lead to just 49-43 with less than four minutes to play. On the ensuing possession, though, Winslow drove to the basket, finishing through contact from Jordan Loveridge that sent him to the line for the 3-point play.
"It was just like a sigh of relief," Matt Jones said. "We needed that bucket."
After his turn at the podium was done, Winslow retreated to the locker room to continue his media obligations. The normally buttoned-up Winslow flashed a smile, enjoying the moment on his hometown stage.
"It's a once in a lifetime experience. I guess two in a lifetime now, now that we won the first game," he said.
Thanks to Winslow, Duke will be back Sunday, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. While Winslow, along with Tyus Jones and Okafor, has only been chasing that banner for a few months, it has been four long years in pursuit for Quinn Cook.
"I'm ready," Cook said. "I'm focused. I'm locked in.
"It's a game away, but we've got a tough team," he continued, breaking a smile the belied the challenge ahead. "It's not going to be handed to us. I know those guys, (Kevin) Pangos is a senior that hasn't been. I know Gonzaga is tired of people saying that they get these top rankings and top seedings in the tournament and not making it, so I know those guys are extremely hungry.
"Kyle Wiltjer played us two years ago at Kentucky. So I know he is extremely hungry. We've got to come in there with the same mindset we've been having. Whoever plays harder and wants it more will win."
If Winslow can match his performance, thrive off of the energy of his friends and family again, then Duke will likely be Indianapolis bound.