HOUSTON— Friday night was the Justise Winslow show at NRG Stadium as the freshman phenom led all players with 21 points and 10 rebounds in his hometown as the No. 1 seed Blue Devils topped No. 5 seed Utah 63-57.
But although the rookie was the main reason Duke lives to dance another day, the reliance on Winslow could foreshadow a problem in the Regional Championship game on Sunday.
"Good thing Justise was on tonight," sophomore Matt Jones said.
Good thing indeed.
Winslow shot a blistering 8-of-13 from the field Friday night. The rest of the team shot 12-for-32, or 37.5 percent. He also was responsible for all three of Duke's 3-pointers in the game. Without Winslow, it would be Utah staying up late tonight, game-planning for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Winslow has, of course, been the star for Duke in the past this season—his 19-point game against Notre Dame and 23-point game against Syracuse immediately come to mind—but he hasn't been the only star before. The Blue Devils thrive on a team effort, one that includes Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook wreaking havoc as a backcourt tandem and Jahlil Okafor effortlessly reaching double-figures in the paint.
But that wasn't what happened Friday.
Duke assisted on just five baskets all game—half as many as the team's previous season-low set against Connecticut back on Dec. 18. The 63 points scored matched the season-low set against Louisville Jan. 17. Jones and Cook combined to shoot a paltry 5-for-14 from the floor. Okafor matched his season-low with six points—though the last time he did that, he played just 19 minutes in the game.
The Duke team that won Friday night simply wasn't the Duke team that's been winning games all season.
Part of the reason for the out-of-character performance could be the stifling defense of the Runnin' Utes, who allowed teams to score just 56.9 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting coming into the game. It could also have been the conditions in the dome environment of NRG Stadium, which helped contribute to 22.8 percent shooting from downtown combined for Duke, Utah, UCLA and Gonzaga in the two games Friday night.
Cook, who failed to make a 3-pointer for the first time in 45 games Friday, did acknowledge that the dome provided a different challenge, but was steadfast in insisting that there was no problem with the team's shooting.
“Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t," Cook said. "It’s the law of averages. Hopefully we’re due for a couple on Sunday.”
If what Cook says is true, then that minuscule assist number will increase Sunday. But that still leaves Duke looking for its regular contribution from Okafor.
"We need Jahlil to score more than six points," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Although Okafor was quick to point out that he didn't have even a relatively quiet game—citing his defense and eight rebounds—and insisted that 7-foot defensive ace Jakob Poeltl wasn't responsible for his low scoring output, he didn't have an explanation for why he matched his season-low Friday. After all, it was hardly the first time he's seen frequent double-teams from defenses.
Assuming that Poeltl isn't as insignificant to Okafor's struggles as the big man claimed, that's a troubling thought for the Blue Devils. Gonzaga deploys a brutal frontcourt that includes 6-foot-10 Kyle Wiltjer, 6-foot-10 Domatas Sabonis and 7-foot-1, 288-pound Przemek Karnowski.
And even if you do take Okafor's word for it that the individual matchup didn't affect him on offense, it certainly played a role on the boards. Poeltl grabbed five of Utah's 18 offensive rebounds—just shy of the 19 North Carolina accumulated back in February for the most allowed in a game for the Blue Devils.
“I think we dodged some bullets early," Cook said. "They couldn’t find their shot and kept getting offensive rebounds.”
Now, with the victory etched in stone, the Blue Devils set themselves to figuring out the game plan for a Gonzaga team that manhandled a hot UCLA club in the second half. According to the players, the priority will be to work on their shooting and continue to defend and box out.
Essentially, go back to the Duke basketball that brought them to Houston in the first place.
"[Gonzaga] played a really good team tonight and I think we’re going to have our hands full," junior Amile Jefferson said. "But I think if we follow the game plan we’re going to be okay.”
And if that game plan fails? Well, there's always Justise.
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