ATLANTA—Vernon Carey Jr. played perhaps the worst game of his young college career Wednesday night.
The Duke freshman, a popular early pick for National Player of the Year, was not even the best big man on the McCamish Pavilion floor, at least according to the box score. That honor belonged to Georgia Tech’s James Banks III, a long, athletic senior that put up an eye-popping statline of 14 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks.
But as the Blue Devils and Yellow Jackets traded leads late, it was neither Carey nor Banks that ultimately sealed the game’s fate. Rather, it was Duke senior captain Javin DeLaurier that was the hero Wednesday.
With two minutes remaining and the second-ranked Blue Devils leading 68-64, DeLaurier checked in for Carey, blocking a shot on the ensuing possession. He then recorded the most pivotal sequence of the evening with just under a minute left, blocking Banks’ shot inside, coming down with the rebound and then draining a pair of free throws, inducing a four-point swing that all but ensured the Duke victory.
“It was big-time. I know Jav’s always ready,” fellow Blue Devil senior captain Jack White said about DeLaurier. “He makes those types of plays. It’s no surprise to me, but I’m just happy to see him execute that in a game.”
Georgia Tech’s combination of Banks and speedy guard Jose Alvarado gave Duke fits all night. The Blue Devils’ DeLaurier, White and guard Jordan Goldwire proved to be what the Blue Devils needed to combat the buzzing Yellow Jackets.
“[DeLaurier provided] some energy on defense,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We had to change how we defended the ball screen. They were just killing us. We read it or trapped it and that worked for the [first] half. In the second half, we didn’t do it as well and they kind of responded. Then we had to change a little bit with that. Jack made a couple big plays—the three but also a block. It’s the way our team’s been. It’s like a collection of guys hopefully doing enough to come up with a big-time [play]…. That’s a big-time win tonight.”
It was not just during the last two minutes that DeLaurier stood out. With nine minutes remaining in the first half, the Shipman, Va., native entered the contest for Carey, immediately energizing the Blue Devils.
DeLaurier kicked it out to Matthew Hurt for a 3-pointer in transition before notching fast break points of his own on Duke’s next time down the floor, hammering down a dunk off a Tre Jones pass. Hurt’s three gave the Blue Devils their first lead in nearly 10 minutes of action.
“I’m really proud of him for the plays he made late, and really throughout the game,” White said. “The way he ran the floor when he first came on the court, it was great for us. He got us going, got an easy bucket, and really tired out their whole team.
“For us, that’s huge. We can really try to get after them defensively and keep guys coming in that are fresh and really try to take teams away from what they want to do and wear them out. Something as simple as running the floor hard for three possessions can make a difference in a game.”
As for Carey, Wednesday was the first time that the 6-foot-10, 270-pound freshman sensation showed rare signs of being mortal.
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His four turnovers were a season high, while his 42.9 percent mark from the field was his least efficient performance since the Blue Devils’ season opener against Kansas and its own stellar center, Udoka Azubuike.
“His length really disrupted me offensively,” Carey said about Banks. “I was trying to post up and go through him early, but I just wasn’t capitalizing.”
When you’re one of the best players in the nation, a down game becomes relative, as Carey still finished with 14 points and six rebounds. Despite Georgia Tech’s physicality, Carey was able to still play his patented bully ball at times, including grabbing a pivotal offensive rebound off a free throw miss and finishing to put Duke ahead 66-62.
“Vernon’s done an amazing job all year at keeping a level head,” DeLaurier said. “Obviously at some points during the game or during a season, you’re going to have struggles, but he’s done a really good job of responding to that and coming back and making huge plays for us like he did tonight...in a game where he wasn’t as efficient as he may have liked to be.”
DeLaurier isn’t likely to continue to steal headlines from Carey, as the younger Blue Devil big is a sure bet to return to form sooner rather than later. But for one night in Atlanta, it was Duke’s elder statesman’s time to shine.