When junior point guard Chelsea Gray went down with a season-ending knee injury Feb. 17 against Wake Forest, Duke became a different team.
In its first games without Gray, the team managed an 11-point win against then-No. 19 Florida State and turned heads with a 16-point road win against then-No. 8 Maryland. But a 69-65 road loss to an unranked Miami squad—the Blue Devils’ first and only ACC loss of the season—served as an indication that the team needed to adapt to life without Gray.
When No. 5 Duke got set to tip off with No. 15 North Carolina to cap off the regular season Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, several players had the talent to replace Gray’s lost production: sharpshooter Tricia Liston, the gritty Haley Peters or reigning ACC Freshman of the Year Elizabeth Williams.
But it was freshman Alexis Jones who stepped into the spotlight in Gray’s absence Sunday, leading the Blue Devils to an emotional 65-58 win against North Carolina on senior day with a career-high 22 points.
“Lex is a very talented player. She’s one of the very best freshmen in the country without question, but also one of the best guards in the league,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I think a part of this is her understanding of what she can do in terms of her changing the tempo of a game.”
Jones’ performance was her third straight game reaching double figures, but her 22-point performance against the Tar Heels showcased facets of her game that appeared to leave both the crowd and even Gray awestruck.
Although Jones’ production was inconsistent at points earlier in the season as she adjusted to college basketball, she commanded both ends of the floor for the Blue Devils Sunday. She shot just 5-of-14 from the field but used a quick first step and a deceptive crossover dribble to get to the rim at will and draw fouls. The freshman shot 11-of-12 from the line on the afternoon, making two more free throws than the entire North Carolina squad.
Jones was all over the place on the defensive end as well, pressuring the ball relentlessly and making hustle plays for the Blue Devils that didn’t make it onto the statsheet. Although she registered just one steal in the game, Jones played a crucial role in the Tar Heels’ 22 turnovers.
And with her team trailing 32-26 early in the second half, Jones helped spark Duke’s 22-2 run that gave the Blue Devils back the lead for good. After knocking down four free throws early in the run, Jones grabbed a long defensive rebound and took the ball coast-to-coast, beating the North Carolina defender with a quick shake for a lay-in with her right hand and forcing the Tar Heels to take a timeout.
Gray ran from the bench to embrace the young point guard after the play, and the pair seemed to feed off each other’s energy during Duke’s decisive run.
“Chelsea is like a big sister to me. During timeouts she tells me what she sees, and I listen to her and try to feed off her energy from the bench that she can’t give on the court right now,” Jones said. “I’m trying to take her coaching ability and put it on the court and just bring everything that she sees that can help make us better.”
In addition to her play on both ends of the floor, Jones’ energy, leadership and poise was on display throughout the contest. Her calm demeanor running the offense showed the maturity of an older point guard and gave Duke the leadership it lacked without Gray on the floor.
With the Blue Devils looking forward to postseason play, their hopes to make a deep run into March could rest on the 5-foot-8 shoulders of their freshman point guard.
“When Chelsea goes out it’s a brand new season, but we finish up a strong regular season and now head into the next one,” McCallie said. “I just think Lex is really getting better every single game and she’s getting a feel for being out there on the floor and directing things.”