Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado pumped his fists at halfcourt, looking for his bench to get to its feet. And as Coach K called timeout, the Yellow Jackets obliged.
With 18 minutes to go, Georgia Tech had No. 2 Duke on the ropes and Cameron Indoor Stadium in what could be best described as a state of confusion. The Blue Devils couldn’t possibly lose on their own floor for the second time in less than two weeks, could they?
Duke answered that question with an emphatic no.
The Blue Devils used an overwhelming 29-9 surge in the span of 12 minutes to overcome its worst offensive half of the season and take out the Yellow Jackets 66-53 in Durham Saturday afternoon. Freshman Tre Jones wasn't at his sharpest in his return to action after missing nearly two weeks with a separated AC joint in his right shoulder—finishing with six points and four assists—but classmates R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson combined for 46 points to carry the offensive burden.
“He said, ‘Little kids do stuff like this. If you want to be a loser be a loser,’” Williamson said when asked about the message from head coach Mike Krzyzewski in that critical timeout. “‘But if you’re a winner, you say you’re a winner, and you go out there and show why you’re a winner.’”
After Georgia Tech stretched its advantage to eight in the opening minutes of the second half, Williamson punched home his second dunk of the afternoon on an inbounds play to get the offense rolling. Cam Reddish then drilled a triple from the left wing a few trips later, igniting the Cameron Crazies for the first time all afternoon.
Reddish finished the day just 1-of-11 from the field, yet his lone made bucket was as critical as any in the win.
“I thought we were in a trance [for the first 22 minutes,]” Krzyzewski said. “After the timeout, our guys really started playing defense and we did a couple of different things against the zone that got us quick buckets…. This is a game you lose if you’re thinking about being a winner. It’s a game that winners win.”
The Yellow Jackets, however, were the ones pushing all the right defensive buttons from the start.
Georgia Tech, which began the day with the 16th-best defensive efficiency per KenPom.com, threw a number of different looks at Duke, as head coach Josh Pastner utilized 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones that forced the Blue Devils to try to make offense happen from the outside.
But long-range buckets didn’t come easily for a Duke offense that is now shooting a miserable 30.2 percent from 3-point land this season. The Blue Devils’ only first-half triple came from Barrett within the first two minutes before missing their next 10 tries.
In total, Duke (17-2, 6-1 in the ACC) made just eight of its 27 first-half field goal attempts. 11 fouls by Georgia Tech (11-9, 3-4) didn't allow the hosts to find any sort of flow, either.
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“[Coach] just challenged us to get back to playing like ourselves,” Barrett said. “we weren’t showing any energy or enthusiasm, nothing out there. We were extremely dead, we knew we had to pick it up, have a little life, and then Alex [O’Connell] was able to come in and give us a huge spark and keep that going for us.”
It was not a banner afternoon for O’Connell, as the sophomore wound up only 2-of-5 from the field and missed both of his 3-point tries. Yet he managed to give some life to a bench that only added five points—O’Connell grabbed a couple of loose balls and the Blue Devils turned all three of his misses into second-chance points.
“He hasn’t played well, and he hasn’t played with the verve that he has in the past,” Krzyzewski said. “The last two days in practice, you could tell he was different. When he came in, the guys had confidence in him…. He was terrific. He was a big part of us winning.”
As has been the case for much of the season, Duke's defense helped make things happen on the other end of the floor.
The Yellow Jackets scored just 24 points in the final 20 minutes, as the Blue Devils kept the pressure up on Georgia Tech guards Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe—the backcourt duo combined for 10 turnovers, as Jones made his presence felt in the later stages of the game.
“When the game is taken from you, it makes you realize how much it really means to you,” Jones said. “For the last week or so I’ve just been able to sit back and appreciate the game of basketball so much more, so being able to go out there and play tonight just meant a lot.”
Duke will have just one day between games as it heads north for a matchup at Notre Dame Monday evening in frigid South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish were walloped on their home floor Saturday afternoon, losing 82-55 to No. 3 Virginia.