For Duke, Saturday began and ended with one player: Greg Paulus.
Paulus, starting at point guard over Nolan Smith for the second time this season, hit the ground running when he nailed the Blue Devils' first shot, a 3-pointer from the corner just 11 seconds into the game. And when the contest was coming to a close, it was Paulus who scored the last baskets for Duke, sinking two free throws with 10 seconds left in overtime-two buckets that sealed a come-from-behind win when Duke needed it most.
But in between his first bucket and last bucket, Paulus provided Duke what it desperately lacked in a 74-47 loss to Clemson and, to an extent, all season.
He became the Blue Devils' leader.
"You've got to be ready. You've got to be prepared," Paulus said. "You've got to be coming in every day to play hard, and when you've got an opportunity, you've got to take advantage of it. We had an opportunity to come back and win and we took advantage of it. But it's not about me, it's about us trying to find a way to win, and that's what we did."
Paulus wasn't the player who scored the most points. He didn't grab the most rebounds or dish out the most assists. Still, it was clear that his impact was beyond the quantifiable.
"Our leadership has been just OK throughout the whole season, and when you're winning sometimes you don't even know who is leading," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And then all of a sudden there's a moment and we need [a leader]. And it's at that moment that you hope somebody steps up and becomes it. That's the best leader, and that's the best way to become the leader of a group-under fire. It's the best way. Nobody designates you. You have to earn being the leader, and Greg Paulus did that today."
But it wasn't smooth sailing for the Blue Devils or for Paulus the whole time. Although he eventually finished with a season-high 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting-he had only hit double figures in three other games-there were times in the first half when it seemed like Paulus would not have his best day, let alone a career performance.
Almost seven minutes into the game, Duke was struggling to find a way to end a 6-0 Hurricane run that had given them a 12-6 lead. Because of that urgency, Paulus tried to do a bit too much, pulling up from well behind the arc on an ill-advised and haphazard 3-point attempt. He airballed the shot and was visibly disappointed with himself.
But despite shooting at just a 30 percent clip in the first half, Paulus never stopped taking shots from anywhere on the court, and he ended up making big plays in big moments for the Blue Devils.
"[Being a leader] is something that I can do, that I want to do," Paulus said. "Whatever way I can help us win, whether it's organizing, being a little bit scrappy, making a few plays, that's what I'm going to do."
Down 40-26 early after the break, Duke kicked off a 25-9 run, mostly between the first and second media timeouts of the second period. Of course, Paulus was crucial in the stretch, making a couple of plays which gave the Blue Devils their first lead since 16:13 in the first half.
It was Paulus' tenacious play on defense that caused plenty of frustration for the Hurricanes-enough even to provoke Miami's DeQuan Jones to throw an elbow at his face, a move for which Jones was ejected.
It was Paulus who, while guarding Miami's star guard Jack McClinton on a full-court press during the Blue Devils' second half-run, stripped the ball and made an easy layup to give Duke a 51-49 advantage.
It was Paulus who sank the trey that yielded Duke a 66-65 lead with 1:20 to play in regulation-just when the Hurricanes looked like they'd garnered enough momentum to win the game.
"Greg was huge," senior Dave McClure said. "He struggled in the first half, but he stepped up and told us that he was going to be there for our team. He's a senior, he's been through it, and he didn't let the first half-and basically the entire season-get to him. He stepped up when we needed him. He was our leader out there."
Even Smith, the starter all year and Paulus' main competition at point guard, conceded that the Blue Devils need Paulus' leadership to succeed-an admission that speaks volumes about the captain's true role on the team.
"He's the leader and I'm going to follow his lead," Smith said. "The emotion he leads us with-he just talks the whole game-we need that. He's been great all year and today it finally came out.... We need him in that role to be a good team. Whether he's starting or I'm starting we need him to play the way he did today."
Paulus' newfound role as the team's leader was ignited by a meeting with Krzyzewski Friday in which the coach told the point guard that his career's defining moment had not yet come. Krzyzewski stopped Paulus again just seconds before the game, the time usually reserved for a quick fist-bump. Krzyzewski grabbed Paulus to hold him up, talked in his ear for a few seconds, and then released the sudden starter to the rest of his team.
And then finally, after lining up to shake hands and before running into the locker room, Paulus lingered on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor. He was the last person to leave the court, and he only did so after offering applause for the fans. He turned all the way around, facing every section, basking in the glow of the performance that could change his senior season.
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