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Alex O'Connell shows potential for key role during first-half run for Duke men's basketball

<p>Alex O'Connell used an impressive defensive play to get a steal and a breakaway dunk during Duke's decisive run Saturday.</p>

Alex O'Connell used an impressive defensive play to get a steal and a breakaway dunk during Duke's decisive run Saturday.

Don’t look now, but Alex O’Connell is undergoing a transformation into a key piece for Duke.

After a freshman season in which O’Connell was seen as little more than a spot-up shooter—he logged less than 10 minutes in 10 of the Blue Devils’ last 12 games last year—the sophomore guard is opening some eyes with his all-around play.

No. 3 Duke’s contest against Yale Saturday night did not start out well for the Blue Devils, and the Bulldogs held a lead for much of the first half. It was not until an O’Connell 3-pointer with eight minutes remaining in the period, Duke’s first of the night, that the Blue Devils took the lead for good, eventually winning 91-58. But this time, O’Connell’s outside shot was not his only contribution—in a short span, the 6-foot-6 sophomore was everywhere on the court, getting his hand in a passing lane for a steal and a breakaway dunk before adding a beautiful dime to R.J. Barrett for a layup, capping a 14-1 Duke run.

“He’s a heck of an athlete, and he played really good defense. He has great feet and he’s 6-foot-6 and long, and he got his hands on a couple balls today,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That was a big game for him: one, it helped us, and, two, he finally did something instead of only hitting a shot. We need to keep seeing progress from these guys.”

Although O’Connell added just one more point the rest of the night, the makings of a crucial rotational piece are clear. He was just a four-star recruit coming out of high school, and is growing into his role unlike his more highly-touted teammates. 

As one of the few guards that receives any run for the Blue Devils, O’Connell was thrust into a larger role when the team’s starting point guard Tre Jones hobbled off the court early in the second half. While O’Connell has almost exclusively played off the ball in his college career, if Jones’ injury is serious, which seems unlikely—Krzyzewski dismissed concerns after the game—he may be asked to fulfill a more important position for the offense.

“I think being [the primary ball handler] is absolutely something I can do,” O’Connell said. “It’s something I haven’t been able to showcase yet, but I think I could prove it’s something I can do for the team.”

While the O’Connell-sparked run put Duke ahead for good, a stretch led by Cam Reddish truly put the game away. After Reddish’s quiet first half, in which he tallied just two points on five attempts, the former No. 3 recruit came alive at the beginning of the second half. Reddish scored eight points in a span of less than four minutes, igniting a 16-7 run that quelled any hopes of an upset from Yale. 

Perhaps most importantly, Reddish turned tenacious defense into points for the Blue Devils. The freshman forward had a team-high four steals, and had two assists stemming from outlet passes off those takeaways. 

Known mostly for his offensive abilities before coming to campus, Reddish is proving that he can be valuable for more than his outside shot. Despite connecting on just one of his 14 looks from behind the 3-point line against Hartford and Yale, he led Duke in steals in both contests, pacing the nation’s top team in steal percentage.

“He hasn’t played well, like he can, but in the second half he did,” Krzyzewski said. “He came out well in the second half and got a couple buckets and played good defense. He played well, and that’s something to build on.”

The box score may look underwhelming for the two, but O’Connell and Reddish showed flashes of brilliance Saturday night. The pair will have a chance to show more sustained success when Duke takes on Princeton and No. 13 Texas Tech after a 10-day break for exams.


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