NEW YORK—Duke only hit a single three. It was outrebounded on the offensive glass by 10, mostly thanks to the incorrigible Oscar Tshiebwe. Four players, including Paolo Banchero and Wendell Moore Jr., left the contest due to cramps in the second half.
But all that ended up not mattering in the end. Why? Because the Blue Devils had Trevor Keels, and Kentucky didn’t.
The 6-foot-4 freshman put on a spectacle built for Broadway Tuesday night, racking up a hard-earned 25 points on 55.6% from the floor. Keels finished through contact constantly, operating off the dribble with the wily skill of a pistol-toting cowboy.
“This kid right here is gonna be a great player, not a good player,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said on Keels after the 79-71 victory. “Trevor’s a great player, and he weighs 230 pounds, and if he was a running back, he would know how to pick holes. He gets fouled, he doesn’t charge very much because he’s so low and has great body control.”
Like any cowboy, Keels always has a silver bullet ready for action. On this night, it was his mastery of the pick and roll. Consecutive baskets to stretch the lead from 55-50 to 59-50 near the 13-minute juncture were case in point.
First, the former No. 23 recruit held TyTy Washington on his back long enough to allow Theo John to exit the premises, giving Keels the breathing room for a smooth step-back. Then, he seemingly set out toward a foul-line pull-up before faking out Lance Ware and dishing it to John for a slam, forcing an exasperated John Calipari to call for time.
Playing with apparent wisdom beyond his years, while still amplifying the youthful flair that made him such a highly-touted prospect, set the Paul VI alum up for the stellar debut. When you boil it down, the night was defined by Keels’ control of himself and the flow of the contest.
“Being under control is one thing we preach,” Keels said. “I use my body a lot, so when you get in the lane, you can’t just go in there full steam ahead, you gotta read the defense, and I think that’s what I did well.”
Bear in mind, that 22-6 run that gave Duke the vital cushion to salt it away came when Banchero was in the locker room. With his teammate on the temporary mend and Kentucky continuing to put the pedal down with Sahvir Wheeler, Keels was the spark.
“I knew when [Paolo] went out, somebody had to step up, and that’s what I did,” Keels said. “I kept looking at the score, and I just made sure we was up, we was winning. That’s something I look at all the time, I don’t really care about my points or nothing like that.”
While his performance was undoubtedly spectacular, the Virginia native was not alone on this night at The Garden. Banchero, despite dealing with those aforementioned cramps, breezed his way to 22 points—thanks to pure athleticism and multiple mid range jumpers that found nothing but nylon—and seven boards. Moore, in a night’s work defined by a lack of settling, displayed his own ability to finish at the rack en route to 12 points. Even Roach, Keels’ old buddy, had his fingerprints all over the win, compiling the most minutes of any Blue Devil and collecting seven rebounds and two steals.
Still, the work that the Blue Devils’ starting shooting guard put in has to be the takeaway from the night. That fusion of frame, patience and finishing expertise are all unique for an off-guard at his age, and Krzyzewski’s trust was rewarded with multiple huge baskets down the stretch.
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Add in the historic setting and the raucous crowd, and you have the perfect storm for a breakout.
“It felt like a movie out there, literally. First couple minutes, it was rough for me, just a lot of nerves for me. I eventually calmed down and just played Trevor basketball, and it worked out for me,” Keels told Andy Katz of NCAA.com in the postgame.
Entering the season, Banchero garnered so much of the praise directed at this roster, and deservedly so. But there were signs from high school film, preseason scrimmages and the Winston Salem-State exhibition, and the Champions Classic made it even clearer.
Trevor Keels has arrived.
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.