NEW YORK - Duke senior Shelden Williams has always been known as a game-changing defensive player. Friday night in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off, Williams showed the country just how good he can be at the other end of the court.
Williams, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, tied a career high with 30 points, nailing 11-of-13 shots from the floor. He dominated whomever Memphis head coach John Calipari brought off the bench to attempt to guard him.
"We didn't have any answers for Shelden Williams," Calipari said. "He doesn't stop playing."
From the opening tip, Williams' interior presence was simply overwhelming. On the first two Blue Devil possessions, the team pounded the ball inside to the Landlord, who delivered buckets on each of those touches. He finished the half 6-for-7 with 14 points but was overshadowed by fellow senior J.J. Redick, who shot 3-for-3 from beyond the arc before the break and notched 15 points.
But during the second half, Williams truly put Duke on his back and refused to let his team lose. Memphis swingman Rodney Carney used his long arms and quickness to deny Redick the ball for the whole period-the Blue Devils' leading scorer was 0-for-3 with no points. Instead, Duke's point guards, Greg Paulus and Sean Dockery, fed Williams on nearly every possession. He shot 5-for-6 after the break, including the game-winning tip, while playing all 20 minutes. He also ripped down six of his game-high eight rebounds, blocked two shots and had two steals in the second half, all without turning the ball over.
"Shelden, of course, we tried to get him the ball almost every time in the second half," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said, calling Friday's contest Williams' best offensive game of the season.
Even when the Blue Devils were not looking for Williams, he seemed to get in on the action, delivering two of the most clutch contributions of his career in the waning seconds of what many Duke players referred to as their first championship of the season.
With less than 35 seconds remaining and the game tied at 67, Dockery drove hard to his right and laid the ball off the glass. The ball rolled off the rim, but Williams' left hand was waiting to tip in the game-winning basket. Just 20 seconds later with Duke up two, Lee Melchionni missed his second of two free throws, but Williams fought to tip the ball out to Dockery, who was immediately fouled and made a free throw to give Duke an all-important three-point lead.
"Shelden deserved to get the MVP," Krzyzewski said. "He showed a lot of poise tonight."
The big man's success also created opportunities for other Blue Devils, allowing the team as a whole to flourish. On guard penetration, Williams' defender had to worry about leaving his man to help defend against the driver and when the Memphis defense was forced to double-team Williams in the post, it left shooters open on the perimeter.
"Any time you can get some inside presence, and obviously Shelden did that for us tonight, they've got to collapse, they've got to double, they've got to worry about him," Paulus said. "And that just leaves guys like me, J.J., Dock open for opportunities."
What allowed Williams to have such an impact on the entire game-he played 39-of-40 minutes-was the fact that he was never in foul trouble, unlike Wednesday's game when he was sent to the bench with four fouls just four minutes into the second half.
With Redick's silent period, the Blue Devils learned Friday that the Landlord's shoulders are broad enough to carry the team. When teams focus their defenses on shutting down Duke's long-range threats, Williams will have to take advantage of his one-on-one opportunities. But when a team has two players as dominant in their elements as Redick and Williams, opponents will continually have to pick their poison.
"Together, they still scored 45 points," Krzyzewski said of his tandem of stars. "If they do that every night, we'll be good."
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