2019 NCAA Tournament: Duke's belief in Tre Jones validated in thrilling Sweet 16 win over Virginia Tech
Duke coaches and teammates always believed in Jones, and he proved them correct on Friday
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At some point, you've got to figure that these close calls will catch up to Duke. After North Dakota State's early lead in the first round, UCF's epic near-upset of the Blue Devils in the second round and now Virginia Tech's eerily similar finish on Friday in the Sweet 16, the assumption is that at some point the No. 1 overall seed will get got.
But then again, maybe not -- and definitely not if Tre Jones is playing at an elite level.
Mike Krzyzewski and Jones's Duke teammates called his performance "magnificent," emphasizing that "good" wasn't enough to describe the difference he made in a game that was, again, ultimately decided by just one bucket. Jones hit three of his first four 3-pointers, a total 180 from his 1-for-8 shooting behind the arc against UCF. The Hokies, like many teams this season, sagged off of Jones at the 3-point line in order to dedicate more manpower to defending Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett.
"These guys believed in me all year, especially after last game with me struggling from 3," Jones said. "They kept believing in me. Coach kept telling me to take the shots, and these guys kept telling me take my shots, and they were able to fall tonight."
Jones's effort was particularly both notable and needed because it comes as one of Duke's better 3-point options, Cam Reddish, was ruled out moments before the start of the game with a knee injury. All season, Coach K has relied on Jones to run the team on the floor, and when those first shots started to fall, it fed into everything else for the freshman point guard. He was pushing the pace, throwing show-stopping alley-oops to Zion and causing problems for Virginia Tech as one of Duke's best perimeter defenders.
"Tre has always been there. We knew he could score," Williamson said in the locker room after the game. "Obviously, during the Texas Tech game, when nobody's shot was going in, Tre made some big plays and he was our scorer. Tonight, we knew they would let Tre shot it. So Coach was the first one to say, 'Tre, they're playing off you. Shoot it. Nobody is telling you not to shoot it. We all have confidence in you.'"
Being able to flip an apparent weakness into a game-changing strength is just the latest Houdini act from a Duke team that has ridden its will to win in close game after close game. Its depth is not good and there is very little experience in the rotation outside of forwards Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden -- Jack White did return to action against Virginia Tech, though only for a few minutes -- yet it has maintained its composure in games where you'd expect 18 and 19-year-old freshman to struggle.
"I'm proud of them. They've never backed down, they've never been afraid the whole year," Krzyzewski said. "And we played this amazing schedule. And the spotlight's on these kids from day one to now. So to have that on them and still respond the way they do, it's really terrific for these kids."
During the course of this postseason run, Zion has mentioned several times that he wished his fellow teammates got more shine, or at least the respect he figures they deserve. He views his teammates -- particularly his fellow freshman classmates -- as equally worthy of celebration as some of the best players in the country. Ever since Williamson went viral with a near free throw line-dunk in Canada during the team's preseason run, he's been keenly aware that his teammates can get lost in his shadow. He said here in Washington, D.C. that he was upset after the reaction to the dunk, because Barrett had a similar play just before him that did not get what Zion considered proper recognition.
"I don't want to be the guy to take away light from other players," Williamson said. "And I said when people started giving my teammates the respect that they deserve, then I guess I'll start doing more stuff like [that free throw line-dunk].
"But it hasn't really changed."
Jones ran right there with Zion on Friday night, playing all 40 minutes and pushing the pace when Duke needed to hit on big momentum plays. Even through the shooting struggles, Zion and the rest of Duke's players have been in Jones's ear with encouragement to keep shooting. After 22 points, eight assists and zero turnovers, Jones finally started to see the recognition that his teammates have been thinking he deserves all along.
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