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Duke men's basketball's improbable comeback sparked by Jordan Goldwire's lockdown defense

<p>Jordan Goldwire has seen an increased role this season due to improvements on the defensive end.</p>

Jordan Goldwire has seen an increased role this season due to improvements on the defensive end.

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Mike Krzyzewski looked down his bench, his team in need of a spark. The Hall of Famer called on his star, Zion Williamson, even though the freshman had just picked up his fourth foul two minutes prior.

And Coach K also signaled for Jordan Goldwire, the Blue Devils' backup point guard who entered the night with just 42 minutes under his belt during conference play.

In a matter of minutes, Goldwire went from afterthought to game-changer.

"We found something," Krzyzewski said afterwards when asked about the decision to play Goldwire alongside starting floor general Tre Jones down the stretch. "[Jordan] had the best look of anyone on the bench. Sometimes when you look down, and he was sitting at the edge of his seat wanting to get in, so let’s get in, man, and then you didn’t want to take him out."

Thanks mainly to Jones, Duke hasn't had to stray from its traditional man-to-man defense much this season. The Blue Devils rank fourth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, lead the country in steal percentage and trail just Syracuse in block percentage.

Except Tuesday night, Duke didn't look like its controlling self for more than a half hour. The Blue Devils were sloppy in transition, allowing Louisville to get easy bucket after easy bucket. And it didn't help that Duke was chucking up shots, chasing a game that seemed well out of reach.

Then came the switch.

"We felt that the 2-2-1 [zone], we don’t do it very much, but we actually practiced it for this game, so we felt we could do it," Krzyzewski said. "We did it one time in the first half, and everything we did in the first half was not good. Maybe the sense of urgency—sometimes something you do doesn’t work because of the attitude you have when you do it, so the sense of urgency made the defense work."

The Blue Devils extended their defense, using Goldwire and Jones to suffocate the Cardinals in their own backcourt. After Duke had just one steal at halftime, it racked up 11 in the final 20 minutes, leading to 19 points off turnovers for the night.

Remember that three-star recruit the Blue Devils plucked from Eastern Kentucky two years ago? Now, he's going down as a part of Duke lore.

"Jordan's my player of the game," Williamson said. "He came in and played great minutes and left it all out there on the court."

In his 11 minutes of action, Goldwire took just two shots—he missed both. The second was by far the more egregious, a breakaway layup that the Blue Devils desperately needed in their comeback bid.

When the ball slipped out of the sophomore's hands, it just looked to be that kind of night.

"I know it was a bad layup. I was embarrassed a little bit but just trying to make up for it any way I could," Goldwire said. "My teammates had my back. They knew I should’ve made the layup, but they weren’t mad at me or anything.... They were confident in me and I was just trying to do what I can to help the team."

But the Norcross, Ga., native redeemed himself—and then some. Goldwire grabbed a pair of steals, played a crucial role in several other Cardinal turnovers and ended the night with a +22 plus-minus, by far the best of any Blue Devil.

"Our thing going into the game was play harder than them, and we weren’t able to do that, so that’s a lesson for our guys," Krzyzewski said. "However, the other lesson is maybe Goldwire can play more, and the 2-2-1 may be added to what we’re doing. 

"What have we played? We’ve played 24 games. They’ve played 24 games in their career, so we can still learn a lot. We learned a lot tonight, and they didn’t give up."

Tuesday night also showed one of Duke's other glaring weaknesses: depth. The Blue Devils' starters played nearly 75 percent of their minutes, and for the year, Duke ranks in the bottom third of the country in bench minutes.

Is Goldwire the solution to the Blue Devils' depth woes? Almost certainly not. 

Still, it seems like Duke will find ways to add him into the mix more down the stretch.

"Being in there in a moment like that helped my confidence," Goldwire said. "It’s something I’m trying to keep building on."

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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