NEW YORK - After Duke's 76-69 win over St. John's Thursday night, Gerald Henderson sat alone in a chair in the Blue Devils' locker room, looking happy from the win but mildly confused.
"Doesn't anyone want to talk to me?" the standout junior asked.
Henderson, who scored 19 points on the night, then let out a laugh, watching as members of the media swarmed freshman Elliot Williams directly to his left.
"I guess they all want to talk to this kid over here," Henderson shrugged, content for once to be an observer of the postgame circus where he usually stars at center ring.
Everyone in the Duke locker room knew that Williams had just played the game of his young career, except they weren't surprised. The decision to start the freshman guard, who is averaging a mere 5.4 minutes in ACC play, was made two practices ago. And from all accounts, it was an easy one to make, particularly given Duke's recent 2-4 skid entering Thursday.
"Elliot added a verve, a verve really in our practice sessions, and we needed it," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're going through a time where we got knocked back and some of our weaknesses were exposed, but you've got to get better from it, and I think Elliot's response... he looked like he had played a long time for us."
That sense of experience showed when Williams drove from the left side of the basket, busted out a spin move and finessed a shot from the baseline to put the Blue Devils up 10 with just more than two minutes remaining in the first half.
It showed with three minutes left in the second period, when he took a feed off the fast break from Kyle Singler and dunked it with authority to widen his team's lead to 14.
And, yes, it showed in his line: a career-high 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in more than 31 minutes of action.
But most of all, it showed in his maturity on defense, his presence around the glass and the way his teammates fed off his energy, all of which were refreshingly new.
"He brought toughness-he had a couple good takes to the basket-but the main thing he brought, he played really good on-ball defense, and that's something we really need," junior guard Jon Scheyer said. "Because he's so athletic, he can really get big rebounds, too."
But again, the Williams fans saw on the floor for perhaps the first time was a player who emerged in practice earlier this week. Scheyer said the freshman had a huge practice-"the best of the year"-and that while the Blue Devils weren't necessarily caught off guard by William's performance, they certainly were energized.
As for the freshman himself, Williams seemed to both revel and be humbled by the new-found attention.
"One of my goals was just to be solid, to get [Gerald Henderson] the ball-get the veterans the ball-and when I had it, make a sharp move, be athletic out there and just finish plays," Williams said. "I just want to be a defensive stopper out there."
Thursday night was the perfect time for Williams to be just that. Not only had Duke given up an average of more than 81 points per game in its four recent losses, but defensive presence Dave McClure never made it to Madison Square Garden, as he was too sick to take the floor.
Williams filled the role he needed to in McClure's absence with solid work on the ball, teammates said. And when he wasn't making plays on defense, he was running the offense on the other end, splitting point guard responsibilities with Scheyer.
And he did all this on one of the most historic stages in basketball, calmly and without nerves.
In order to bounce back in the ACC, Duke needs tonight not to just be an anomaly, but rather the first of many great performances from Williams.
Because the feeling in that locker room is one the Blue Devils would like to replicate several times over-energy, levity and excitement from a win. Even if it means sharing the spotlight every once in a while.
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