You would be hard-pressed to find another game manager in the country as prolific on both ends of the floor as Tre Jones.
Sure, Justin Robinson had a spectacular outing in his first-ever start, and yes, Vernon Carey Jr. brought down the house with slam dunk after slam dunk.
But time and time again, the common denominator of success on most plays against North Carolina Saturday night was the sophomore point guard who played the biggest role in his team’s win.
“I’ve never played in that environment,” Jones said. “There’s nothing like playing in Cameron when it’s like that.”
The Apple Valley, Minn., native notched a double-double, his third of the season, with 21 points and 11 assists in Duke’s triumphant 89-76 victory over the team’s Tobacco Road rivals. Though his heroic efforts did not trump his jaw-dropping performance the last time Duke faced the Tar Heels—what could possibly eclipse a buzzer beater after an intentionally missed free throw to force a overtime?—his all-around game came as close as it could.
From the opening tip, Jones pushed the tempo on offense, leading the charge for 15 first-half fast break points for the Blue Devils. Near full-court dagger passes to Carey from Jones led to easy buckets for Duke, a team that occasionally struggles in its offensive half-court sets. The Tar Heels could not keep pace, allowing Jones to take full reigns of how the game was going to go.
“We wanted to come out early,” Jones said. “I mean, come out, control the pace, control the game early and be able to play how we want to play.”
An early corner three by Jones opened up driving lanes later on for the point guard, as his dazzling drive-and-kick passes helped Duke shoot 10-for-21 from deep. Jones would hit two more 3-pointers throughout the evening, one of them acting as a semi-dagger in the hearts of Tar Heel fans who remained quiet for the rest of the game, as Cole Anthony’s outstretched hands did not stop Jones from draining his shot.
Jones got whatever he wanted on the offensive side of the ball, and though his 4-for-13 mark from the field wasn’t ideal, there is something to be said about the rewards Jones can reap when he plays aggressively. Jones knocked down all 10 of his free throws, helping to put North Carolina’s dominant bigs on the bench with foul trouble.
Jones’ offensive talents have been pulled to the forefront of his focus this season without the likes of Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett to carry the scoring load. But anyone who’s followed the 6-foot-3 guard’s career since he’s stepped foot in Durham knows that Jones’ bread and butter has always been his suffocating perimeter defense. The twinkle in his eye as he takes pride in locking down every guard who enters Cameron was seen again against the Tar Heels. Jones held North Carolina leading scorer Anthony, to just nine points on 4-of-14 shooting, which made the Tar Heels’ iso offense stall and struggle.
Jones pressured Anthony at halfcourt every play, and walled off countless scoring opportunities. On one play, Anthony pulled out all his ball-handling tricks, trying his darnedest to shake free of the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Semifinalist. But Jones held his ground, forcing Anthony to give up the rock which continued to be a trend throughout the game. Jones finished with two blocks and a steal to cap off an impressive statline.
When the chips are down and the momentum is up for grabs, the Blue Devils look to their fearless leader to calm things down and keep focus.
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“When those moments happened, we stayed together as a team where we got even closer together as a team,” Jones said. “We eliminated those things that we weren't doing and we were able to extend the lead.”
Whether it’s throwing an alley-oop to Carey out of a double team or finding an open Robinson on the perimeter, Jones controls the game from the point guard position better than anyone in the ACC. His Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award finalist berth tells the same story. Usually, seniors have the experience necessary to lead their teammates. In just two years in Durham however, Jones has grown as a player and a leader, in hopes of bringing his team to the promise land this postseason. In possibly his final game in Cameron, Jones showed why Krzyzewski made him a team captain at such a young age.
“He was magnificent tonight,” Krzyzewski said.
Correction: Jones' buzzer beater against North Carolina forced overtime, not double-overtime. The Chronicle regrets the error.