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Duke men's basketball's bench leads Blue Devils to blowout win against South Carolina State

Duke had six different Blue Devils score double-digit points against S.C. State.
Duke had six different Blue Devils score double-digit points against S.C. State.

It had been over three weeks since the Blue Devils had seen their home court.

But rather than rust, Tuesday provided a look at what a refreshed Duke squad is capable of, as it handily bounced back from a disappointing loss at Ohio State, taking down the Bulldogs 103-62 for its largest margin of victory this season.

While the starters impressed Tuesday night with four of them notching double-digit scoring, the real stories came off the bench. 

Twelve Blue Devils saw game action tonight, even with Theo John out of the rotation due to injury. That’s good for second-most players in a game this season, second only to the 13 that played in Duke’s rout of Lafayette in November. And of those 12, 11 notched points, the most all season.

“We shot the ball really well—shared it,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought Bates [Jones] really helped us a lot. AJ [Griffin] has been coming on these last two weeks, he's really gotten a lot of individual work and play. And he's making up for time lost from his injury—he didn't play basketball for two years. So it's just a matter of him continuing to work…AJ really took some steps up today.”

Three minutes and 40 seconds into the first half, Krzyzewski made his first set of substitutions, bringing in senior captain Joey Baker and Griffin. While neither substitution was unexpected, few would have guessed that by time the buzzer sounded, these two would be in the top three in points for the match, with Griffin leading the way on a career night. 

After struggling with his 3-point consistency throughout the season, Baker found his stroke Tuesday, perhaps inspired by the 3-point prowess of the rest of his teammates, as he knocked down a three on his only attempt in the first half from beyond the arc, helping his team to a ridiculous 73% clip through the first 20 minutes. In the second half, he added to that total, hitting 2-of-3 from 3-point range to bring him to 13 points for the night—a new season-high and the third-most points he’s scored in a game in his career. 

Griffin had a quiet, but efficient first half, knocking down a three 12 minutes into the game and following it up with a floater in the last two minutes of the period. But that was just a taste of what was to come in the final 20 minutes. 

Through the first 10 minutes of the second half, Griffin was the Blue Devils’ utility player, doing a little bit of everything. In one sequence, shortly after getting subbed back into the game, he pulled down the defensive rebound on one end, scored a layup on the other and made a block on the ensuing Bulldogs possession. Through the next five minutes, Griffin continued to dabble in each aspect of the box score, pulling down a board here, making a block there and tallying an assist elsewhere. When it was all said and done, he’d total career highs in both assists and blocks, with four and two respectively. 

But it wasn’t until there were just over seven minutes remaining in the contest when the crowd realized that they were watching something special from Griffin. With just seconds remaining on the shot clock, Griffin settled behind the arc, and pulled up as time expired. 

Swish. And the crowd went Crazy.

He quickly followed it up with Duke’s next two field goals, first hitting a hook shot before knocking down his third three of the game. He’d end the night with a pair of free throws before being substituted out of the contest, bringing him to 19 points—a new career-high—on a ridiculous 7-8 clip from the field. 

“It was always [about] being aggressive, but really just playing with that enthusiasm, playing with that love of the game and not forgetting about it,” Griffin said of his mindset. “I thank my coaches and my teammates for pushing me and helping me to get that back, and I wouldn't be here without them either. So I give thanks for them.”

And Griffin wasn’t the only one setting season highs off the bench. Bates Jones racked up the box score stats too, notching new highs in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and minutes.

With mere minutes to go after Griffin’s substitution and the Blue Devils up by nearly 40, you might think that the most exciting moments of the game had already happened. In this game’s case, you would be wrong.

After a running layup from Jaylen Blakes missed the mark, junior forward Keenan Worthington found himself in the right place at the right time. He rose up, got control of the rock and slammed down a vicious putback dunk, bringing the entire stadium to their feet. His teammates could barely control their joy, with freshman Trevor Keels holding his teammates back from simply storming the court on the spot. 

The team had been having fun all night—this was just the cherry on top. 

“He's got some sneaky bounce,” Bates Jones said about Worthington. “I was real happy for him that he got that putback tonight—that was sweet.”

In addition to all the other action, Michael Savarino entered the game for the first time since being arrested on DWI-related charges Nov. 14. After missing his first two 3-point attempts, he made the third to bring the volume in Cameron Indoor Stadium up several decibels. His three not only marked his career high in points, but it also marked his first collegiate field goal.

Tonight gave the Blue Devils a taste of two things they’d been missing against the Buckeyes—joy and bench contributions.

And with ACC play quickly approaching, there is little more important than that. 

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