Tom Sorensen

Yes, they’re Duke, but a likeable team

Duke guard Quinn Cook (2), center Jahlil Okafor (15) and forward Justise Winslow (12) celebrate at game’s end as the Blue Devils defeated Robert Morris 85-56 at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. Friday, March 20, 2015. The three provided 49 of the Blue Devils' points.
Duke guard Quinn Cook (2), center Jahlil Okafor (15) and forward Justise Winslow (12) celebrate at game’s end as the Blue Devils defeated Robert Morris 85-56 at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. Friday, March 20, 2015. The three provided 49 of the Blue Devils' points. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Some people will never like Duke. Some schools will never like Duke. There are states that probably will never like Duke and there might be countries.

But if you’re not aligned with another school and have nothing against alleged evil empires, you ought to like these Blue Devils.

Duke freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow were accustomed to being the best player on whatever court they stepped. But they play as if they spent their time on the playground looking for an open man. The most selfless of the Blue Devils, of course, is senior Quinn Cook, who slides from point guard to shooting guard to accommodate Jones.

Each of these players is capable of making a game his. In Duke’s second-round NCAA tournament game against Robert Morris on Friday, Cook, Jones and Okafor took turns. Winslow, a 6-6 forward from Houston, struggled.

Duke led by 21. With 11:56 remaining, the Colonials cut the lead to 10, and the teams went to their benches for a media timeout.

This is the point in the game when you think about 2012, when the second-seeded Blue Devils were upset in the second round by Lehigh. This is the point when you think about 2014, when the second-seeded Blue Devils lost to Mercer.

You couldn’t avoid thinking about Mercer. The last few seconds of the upset were flashed on the Time Warner Cable Arena scoreboard.

Winslow’s first-half numbers: 0 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists. As the teams returned after the timeout, and every fan in the gym not aligned with Duke found a reason to cheer, Winslow made the game his.

He hit a three, a play Krzyzewski called the biggest of the game.

“The three points were worth a lot,” says Krzyzewski. “I don’t know how many, a lot.”

Jones missed a three and Winslow grabbed the rebound and hit a layup.

Winslow grabbed a Robert Morris miss, drove the court, went hard to the lane and found Jones in the corner for a three.

A 10-point lead was now 18, and although Duke would win 85-56, who knows what would have happened if not for Winslow’s sequence.

Earlier on this court Michigan State, a 3 seed, and then Virginia, a 2 seed, failed to hang onto seemingly comfortable leads and late in the game had to hang on to win.

The Blue Devils did not hang on. They just kept doing what they do. The ball was going out of bounds, you could tell, and Cook saved it, threw a behind the back pass to Amile Jefferson and the lead was 22.

Some teams play with joy and this one – except when Okafor missed a reverse dunk – does. Krzyzewski yelled from the bench and, when he caught the eye of an official, appeared to yell “Not at you!” You don’t miss reverse dunks when a regular dunk will work.

Marshall Plumlee, a 7-foot junior, used to be a tall guy who tried hard and took up space. He still is, but he’s better at it. He scored on an alley-oop, kept numerous rebounds alive by slapping the ball to teammates and also found them with long passes when he was beneath the basket. Yes, he’s four inches taller than any of the Colonials. So he did what he was supposed to do.

Unless the freshmen stick around to try to lead the 2016 (or ’17 and ’18) team to the national championship, we won’t see these guys again.

Cool to have the opportunity to watch them before they go.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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