CHARLOTTE—While Zion Williamson stole the show offensively once again Friday, a pair of unsung heroes keyed Duke’s comeback victory against North Carolina.
After the Tar Heels got off to a scorching start from the field—taking a 33-20 advantage with 6:24 remaining in the first half—Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski motioned for seldom-used center Antonio Vrankovic to enter the game.
With Marques Bolden sidelined with a knee injury and starting center Javin DeLaurier in early foul trouble, Vrankovic established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the paint and forced North Carolina to live on the perimeter. Coupled with defensive stalwart Jordan Goldwire—who replaced a struggling Cam Reddish minutes earlier—Duke held the Tar Heels to just 11 points for the rest of the half and tied the score at 44 entering the locker room.
“It was crazy,” Vrankovic said. “But, this whole week and just four years in general, Coach has been saying, 'When you come off the bench, bring energy, overall energy of the team.' That’s one of the things I kept my mind on today and I did it. It went my way. It was great, we came back and we won.”
The duo’s hard work earned them a starting nod for the second half, when Goldwire took over defensively. The former three-star recruit continued his defensive resurgence with a pair of steals—which led to four Duke points—and added a crucial layup off a loose ball that R.J. Barrett lost control of with 1:46 remaining that gave the Blue Devils a 72-71 advantage.
Goldwire impressed once again with his energy and, in tandem with Tre Jones, displayed the ability to shut down opposing guards. North Carolina started the contest 2-for-4 from the perimeter, but was held to just 2-for-20 from downtown after Goldwire entered the contest.
Tar Heel sharpshooter Cameron Johnson, in particular, scored 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting in the opening eight minutes but was held to just nine points on 3-of-12 from the field the rest of the game.
“I thought J-Gold did a great job on [Johnson],” Krzyzewski said. “Our bench really helped us.... Both [Goldwire and Vrankovic] gave energy, and maybe that's one of the reasons R.J. and Zion weren't as tired, because instead of giving energy to a teammate, they were getting energy from a teammate.”
After initially looking like the majority of his playing time would come on the practice court, Goldwire has used stingy defense to carve out a role for himself. While the Blue Devils have generally been desperate for offense off the bench, the sophomore has emerged as a steady backup point guard for Duke.
Goldwire shattered his career-high in minutes Friday with 28 and has been a viable option for the Blue Devils ever since he helped spark Duke’s legendary 23-point comeback against Louisville Feb. 12 by forcing numerous Cardinal turnovers.
“J-Gold has been playing better and better as the season’s been going. He’s a hooper, he’s a dog,” DeLaurier said. “He’s out there strapping a lot of times the other team’s best player. We’ve seen that in practice and now everyone else is finally able to see it in the game, so it was great for us.”
Goldwire and Vrankovic could hear their numbers called again Saturday when the Blue Devils battle Florida State in the ACC championship game. The Seminoles could not be stopped in Friday’s upset win against Virginia, when they shot nearly 60 percent from the field, and Vrankovic may be needed to help counter 7-foot-4 center Christ Koumadje on the interior.
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Vrankovic proved that he could stand his ground against an established post presence when he swatted Luke Maye in the first minute of the second half.
"One of the coolest things was blocking Luke Maye. Great player, obviously had a phenomenal experience at North Carolina," Vrankovic said. "For someone, like I said, who doesn’t see much of the floor to be blocking him in a situation like this—truly, truly incredible experience. I love it."