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The 'uncommon' Duke team we all expected

<p>Senior Matt Jones has embraced a defensive-minded role again but made a huge 3-pointer Saturday night.&nbsp;</p>

Senior Matt Jones has embraced a defensive-minded role again but made a huge 3-pointer Saturday night. 

NEW YORK—When Matt Jones was asked to describe the Blue Devils in one word at Duke’s preseason media day in October, he made a prescient choice.

“This team is going to be uncommon this year,” Jones said. “We can be unique and special in a whole lot of aspects, so I’m excited.”

He probably didn’t mean it like this, though.

The Blue Devils were not uncommonly dominant from start to finish this year like many expected them to be, enduring eight regular-season losses. But the adversity they faced with almost every rotation player and even their head coach missing time due to injuries was uncommon. Playing 16 straight games within 10 points for the first time in almost 80 years was uncommon.

It all culminated in the most uncommon run to a championship in ACC tournament history, and junior Grayson Allen and freshman Frank Jackson both came back to the word after Saturday’s win against Notre Dame.

“Winners are uncommon, first of all, so you have to do uncommon things. You have to beat tired, you have to beat that feeling of wanting to relax,” Allen said. “It’s been our motto throughout the year, just to be uncommon. It’s a big thing [head coach Mike Krzyzewski] tries to teach us is to beat human nature. Usually when you’re feeling satisfied, you should be the most unsatisfied.”

Three days in a row, Duke fell behind by at least eight points in the second half against ranked opponents—first Louisville, then North Carolina and finally the Fighting Irish. Duke had to play one more game than all of them, played its starters heavy minutes and should not have had more in the tank down the stretch than any of them.

There’s a reason no team in the 11 years since the ACC expanded to 12 schools had won four games in four days to take home the trophy. When the Blue Devils fell behind by eight points again to Fighting Irish, even Krzyzewski’s belief wavered.

“I can see why no one's done it before because I didn't think we were going to do that as that game evolved in the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “It's a journey that's kind of hard to describe.... We've won a lot of these. We've won, this is our 14th, but this one's so different.”

Duke was reeling eight minutes into the half, after back-to-back turnovers by Allen and a powerful putback slam by V.J. Beachem made the score 56-48. But the Blue Devils had 48 points when they started their run Friday, too, and 49 points at the same turning point Thursday. It was an uncommon coincidence that it was where their comeback started again.

“This week was another test of who we are as basketball players, who we are as people,” Jackson said. “When times get hard, what do we do? I think with all the heart and fight we have, we rose to the occasion and this was the result of that.”

Amile Jefferson—Duke’s graduate student leader, in his fifth year and playing for his first ACC championship—made two straight shots in the post to cut the deficit in half. The Blue Devils held Notre Dame scoreless for more than a three-minute stretch and Jefferson converted another layup to hand Duke the lead.

The Fighting Irish did not go down quietly, staying within one possession until the final minute, but instead of finding Allen or Luke Kennard on the perimeter in crunch time, Duke looked to an uncommon hero to deliver the knockout punch with the biggest shot of its season.

Tatum kicked a pass out to Jones on the 3-point line with the Blue Devils up by just one with 48 seconds left. Jones, who had not made a shot from the field since Wednesday and is shooting 32.6 percent from deep this year, did not hesitate to let it fly.

“It had to go in. As soon as he released it, I jumped up in the air. I just knew that shot was meant to be,” Allen said. “Matt’s a rock for us. Most of the stuff that he does doesn’t show up on the statsheet, but he’s the guy that we want on the court, we want on our team and we want as our leader.”

Jones was right before the season, and Duke’s uncommonness is finally manifesting in the way he envisioned. This was the first week of the year that the Blue Devils’ versatile pieces, whether it was Tatum, Kennard, Allen, Jackson, Harry Giles or Jones himself, all made major contributions and complemented each other to make the team better than the sum of hyper-talented parts.

Three more weeks like this might be a recipe for cutting down the nets in Phoenix, a prospect that seemed far-fetched just four days ago for everyone outside the Duke locker room.

“We know how high our ceiling is,” Allen said. “We know that when we’re playing our basketball, we can beat anybody, and we knew that from the beginning of the year. We just didn’t get to put it together.” 


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