It was a physical game. Clemson’s defense punched Duke in the mouth early. And when you get punched in the mouth, you need someone to turn to. Tuesday night, Joey Baker and Bates Jones were the guys to turn to.
The duo came off the bench in the first half, bringing their experience and sharp offense to keep the Blue Devils level-headed amidst the swarm of the Tigers’ off-ball defense.
“The two kids that kept us in the game were Joey and Bates,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Bates and Joey are older. They've been in physical games, they were able to deal with that. And in the second half we adjusted to that level and did enough.”
With Trevor Keels out, both Baker and Jones had an expectation to step up. They knew that they would receive additional minutes, and the offense needed extra firepower to fill the void left by the talented freshman. Needless to say, they filled that void admirably.
While much of the starting lineup made bad passes and turned the ball over early in the game, Baker and Jones continued to make the right decision. The duo combined for 14 first-half points and did not record a single turnover.
Beyond his role on the court, Baker embraced his position as a senior leader on the team this week in practice. On a team as young as Duke’s, the voice of an experienced player like Baker can improve the play of the entire roster.
“When Trevor went out, in our practices, Joey elevated his talk and his enthusiasm,” Krzyzewski said. “And as hard as he worked, he wanted to work harder; he was really a co-captain. And it translated.”
Nailing his first three triples of the game, Baker led the team in scoring in the first half with nine points. With six minutes left in the first half, after Clemson had pushed ahead and secured a 26-23 lead, Baker hit the second of a quick pair of triples to shut down the Tigers’ momentum.
Although Baker’s role on the court is often that of a flashy 3-point shooter, the senior from Fayetteville, N.C. keeps his mind off of any individual stats or accomplishments.
“We're all bought in, and we just want to win games,” Baker said. “And so whatever that takes; that was my mindset going in, however I can help the team win. Whether it be hitting shots or just trying to make plays defensively it boils down to winning.”
Meanwhile, in the early stages of the game, Jones stepped in and made his mark, forcing a change of possession through a jump ball and hitting an open three. Jones followed that trey up with a tough lay-in, as Duke and Clemson traded blows back and forth. Jones’ five early points were crucial in establishing the Blue Devils’ flow on offense.
Although the Blue Devils fought and won this tough matchup, the game certainly revealed significant weaknesses in the team’s play. Clemson managed to take 19 more field goals than Duke due to the Tigers’ strong rebounding and defensive play. In fact, the Tigers outrebounded the Devils on the offensive boards 14 to three. For Krzyzewski, these weaknesses are nothing new, instead offering chances to improve.
“We are not a perfect team,” Krzyzewski said. “We are a young team that had stoppage, has injuries and has played our butts off. As we move forward, we just want to keep seeing individual and collective improvement, but I haven't seen a perfect team yet. And we certainly are not one.”
When you think of this year’s team, one’s mind tends to go straight to the stars: the future first rounders, the award-winner watchlist players and the young talent.
But if tonight’s game revealed anything, it’s that when push comes to shove, you want Baker and Jones at your back.
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