NEW YORK—Nearly a year ago to the day, Duke’s freshmen dazzled and dominated in a 118-84 season-opening victory against No. 2 Kentucky, with four rookie starters accounting for more than 75 percent of the Blue Devils’ points.
The first half of Duke’s 2019-20 season opener against Kansas made it clear that heroic efforts from the newcomers would not be the Blue Devils’ key to victory—Duke’s freshmen combined for just 14 points on 5-for-17 shooting and six turnovers.
Despite the sluggish start, freshman guard Cassius Stanley and sophomore point guard Tre Jones came alive in the second half for the Blue Devils, leading No. 4 Duke to a 68-66 victory against the third-ranked Jayhawks at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night. In an all-around sloppy Champions Classic matchup—the two teams combined for 44 turnovers and 19 missed free throws—the steady performance from Jones and energizing night from Stanley were enough for the Blue Devils.
"I've told [Jones] every day, ‘Look, you’re going to lead us. I don’t care what happens, you’re going to lead us,’" Stanley said. "I told him in the middle of the game, ‘You’re going to lead us to this win.’ I told him for sure, ‘We’re going to hop on your back,’ and that’s what we did."
The last five minutes featured numerous lead changes, the first coming from Kansas’ mammoth center Udoka Azubuike. With the Jayhawks (0-1) down 56-55, Azubuike bullied his way to the basket, threw down a two-handed slam and added a rare free throw make after Matthew Hurt fouled the Kansas big.
Kansas’ Devon Dotson and Stanley exchanged lay-ins on consecutive possessions, but Stanley was fouled on his drive, giving the Blue Devils a late 62-61 lead that they would retain for the rest of the game.
Not to let his fellow Duke guard outshine him, Jones rose over two Jayhawk defenders for a jumper that fell through the net after hitting the rim three times, extending the Blue Devil advantage to three with 90 seconds left. After key defensive stops, Jones sunk four free throws to ice the game in Duke’s favor.
"This year, it’s his team," Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He feels less pressure with more responsibility. Those are the type of people you would like in your organization. I told him, ‘Just follow your instincts…. Everyone will react to you and you just go for it.’"
Trailing 46-37 after an abysmal start to the second half, the Blue Devils (1-0) looked like they were quickly falling out of the contest. Then it was Jones and Stanley’s time to shine.
On consecutive possessions, Jones found a Duke big open beyond the arc, with Vernon Carey Jr. and Jack White knocking down 3-pointers to cut the growing Kansas advantage to three points.
After looking lost in his first official half of college basketball, losing the ball numerous times and breaking down on defense, Stanley came alive halfway into the second period. The 6-foot-6 guard, known for his elite athleticism, escaped for back-to-back breakaway dunks, knotting the score at 47 with 12 minutes remaining in the contest.
Stanley would add a 3-pointer from the left corner a few minutes later, his first make from beyond the arc of the season, finishing with 13 points on 83 percent from the field.
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"[Stanley] plays his ass off," White said. "You saw, he was just all over the court. He loves to play, obviously he’s a great athlete, but he’s just a competitor. Great person to have around, great teammate.... I think that defense and that effort he put in early just translated into him getting into the game and his offense just kind of flowed from there."
Krzyzewski elected to run out a small starting lineup against the Jayhawks, with Jones, Jordan Goldwire and Stanley joining Hurt and Carey in the starting five. Nine Blue Devils featured heavily in the rotation, confirming that Krzyzewski will rely on a deeper rotation than in prior seasons.
The quick lineup worked to the Blue Devils' favor in the first half, forcing 18 Kansas turnovers, including four from the 7-foot, 270-pound Azubuike. However, the second half proved to be a different story for the Jayhawks.
After a quiet opening period, Azubuike took over out of the locker room, leading Kansas on an 11-0 run with a thunderous dunk and two assists. An Ochai Agbaji 3-pointer at the top of the key sent the pro-Jayhawks Madison Square Garden crowd into a frenzy, with Kansas taking a 43-37 lead into the under-16 timeout.
"We had an emotional timeout, made some subs and what was good was that some of the kids that were in at that time came back in the game, and they were good," Krzyzewski said. "You don’t find that out until you have a game like this. Are you going to stay in a funk or are you going to respond? We played so hard and well in the first half, and we were just a completely different team for four minutes. Then we came back. "
This marks Duke’s first win against Kansas since the 2011 Maui Invitational championship game and its third consecutive Champions Classic victory.