With Ryan Kelly on the shelf indefinitely each player knew he had to step up to keep the team afloat during a tough ACC schedule. Tonight, the freshmen shined in the victory.
“[The freshmen] had a good first half, and they gave us a huge lift [in the second half],” senior forward Mason Plumlee said.
Duke overcame a halftime deficit to knock off the Yellow Jackets by a score of 73-57. If it seemed as if a different team took the court to start the second half, that’s because there was a different lineup. After talking to his team in the locker room, head coach Mike Krzyzewski left juniors Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston—who started the game—on the bench while Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson ran with the first unit to provide a much needed spark.
“I thought we were hesitant to shoot, and no team of mine should be that way. Amile at the end of the half hitting that two helped a lot,” Krzyzewski said.
Sulaimon was coming off the bench for the first time in his career after starting the first 16 games of the season. Mired in a horrible shooting slump—he shot just 28.1 percent from the field in four games this month—Thornton was given the nod over the freshman.
Sulaimon responded by contributing his highest scoring output since Dec. 19 against Cornell.
“Rasheed had his best performance since Temple. For a lot of freshmen, it is tough to keep playing really well, but he had a month where he just wasn’t playing up to the level that he can play at, but tonight he did. He practiced that way for the last three days and it paid off,” Krzyzewski said.
Sulaimon’s benefit for this team is not solely his ability to score, but also his defensive intensity and rebounding. Sulaimon helped lead a Duke defense that forced 21 Yellow Jacket turnovers—more than twice the turnovers Georgia Tech committed in their overtime contest against Virginia Tech last week.
Jefferson was coming off an impressive game in Raleigh against N.C. State, but left the Duke faithful wanting more after fouling out in just 12 minutes. Jefferson collected four personal fouls, but played a career high 28 minutes.
“He started the second half and looked like a kid who has started for a while. He really played well for us and gives us some energy,” Krzyzewski said.
Jefferson is not the physical sort of rebounder that Hairston or Mason Plumlee is, but uses all that energy to find ways to always get his hand on the ball and make plays happen.
“[Amile] is a crafty guy, he’s not going to bang you,” Seth Curry said. “He’s going to work around guys and get offensive rebounds and find lanes to get layups and things like that. He’s done a better job on the offensive rebounds than we did even with Ryan in there so that’s an added bonus.”
Despite the terrific play of the freshmen, and the fact that both started the second half in place of the juniors, Krzyzewski stopped short of saying they would be in the starting lineup when Duke next takes the court against Miami on January 23 in Coral Gables, Florida.
“I don’t know who the hell is going to start next week,” Krzyzewski said. “Should we have people mail in who we should start? If it generates tweets and followers for people, we’re all for that.”
Although Krzyzewski made light of the freshmen’s performance, the way Jefferson and Sulaimon have stepped up is no joking matter. Curry put it ever so simply.
“They’re here for a reason,” he said.