The great Jennifer Holliday in her iconic role as Effie White in Dreamgirls on Broadway once crooned, “I am changing…I'll change my life, I'll make a vow, and nothing's gonna stop me now,” triumphantly announcing to the world that she would not be brought down by past struggles.
When Duke took the court Wednesday night at Wake Forest with a decidedly different look than in its Saturday 76-74 loss to Miami, it seemed that the Blue Devils had taken a page out of Holliday’s book en route to a 76-64 win against the Demon Deacons.
For the first time this season, Duke shook up its starting lineup, with freshman AJ Griffin getting his first career nod alongside the usual suspects, Paolo Banchero, Wendell Moore Jr., Mark Williams and Trevor Keels. However, even more uncanny for the Blue Devil faithful was the face running it all. Associate head coach and head coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer acted as head coach after head coach Mike Krzyzewski was sidelined with a non-COVID-related virus.
Finishing with a team runner-up point total of 22 on 8-of-11 shooting, Griffin was a revelation in his first outing as a starter. Though his new role came with more responsibility, he more than rose to the occasion, playing efficiently and with an air of calm and control. Not to mention, he had more time to demonstrate his robust skillset—such as his impeccable dribbling and iso ball capability, as well as his defensive prowess—through a career-high 36 minutes.
Clearly, Griffin was unphased by the extra minutes, saying, “Each game, you prepare the same, and that's to play your best with the minutes you get. [It] doesn’t matter if you start or come off the bench, it’s the same mentality.”
Likely the most frustrating thing for Duke about Saturday was its inability to close out such a tight game in those critical final minutes, and in the Blue Devils’ first half against the Demon Deacons, it looked like it might be more of the same. The similarly demonic foes were tied 29-29 with 44 seconds to go. However, a steal followed by a fast-break 3-pointer from Keels proved that wouldn’t happen this time, and Griffin put the dot on the “i” with a buzzer beater from beyond the arc to give Duke a six-point lead going into the half.
Griffin led the charge in those final minutes, culminating in a dominant close to the first half and a decisive second half. Scoring seven points in the last five minutes of the half, Griffin transformed into the most dominant version of himself that the Blue Devil faithful have seen this season.
“We spent a lot of film sessions, a lot of time teaching those situations. And if you can really win that last minute, it's a huge swing for us tonight. To go up halftime, to be up six points when it was really back and forth—they were up, we were up—that's a big time swing,” Scheyer said.
Griffin battled a knee injury in preseason, and his slow integration into the lineup has been one of the most anticipated storylines for those following the team. His commanding entry into the starting lineup, then, marks the beginning of his second act, as he gave Duke fans more than a taste of what he’s fully capable of.
“He works so hard. You guys have seen the work that he puts in day in and day out. Nobody would be surprised at what he's doing now,” Moore, a team captain, said. “There’s a lot I could say [about Griffin], but really, the most important thing is I'm proud of him. I’m proud of how he just stuck through everything, stuck through the adversity he’s had. Now he's coming into the player we all knew he could be.”
Starting Griffin was a deliberate choice, and a smart one at that. Both Scheyer and Banchero emphasized after the game that Griffin’s inclusion in the starting lineup gave the Blue Devils more size against a large Wake Forest team. The starting Demon Deacons have an average height of just over 6-foot-7, including 6-foot-2 Daivien Williamson, which is a bit taller than the average height of Duke’s previous starting lineup. By playing 6-foot-6 Griffin off the bat, the Blue Devils were able to establish greater physical strength early and control the flow of play.
As such, Duke’s scheme looked different than before. Banchero, who led the team with 24 points, had some breathing room, making him able to over double his field goal attempts from Miami as he thrived in and around the key rather than being pushed to the perimeter. Overall, he seemed to have a more comfortable role against the Demon Deacons.
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“Obviously, that was an exciting win for our team, it's been a heck of a 24 hours,” Scheyer said after the game. “I think there was a lot of motivation coming off that Miami game with things that we can do better.”
According to the players available postgame, Krzyzewski was unavailable for Duke’s practice the day before the game, and practice was run by Scheyer and the other coaches. While the team always wants the winningest coach of all time behind the wheel as much as possible, Scheyer’s effort in his absence—especially as he prepares to take the helm full time after Krzyzewski retires at the end of the season—was more than satisfactory, as the Blue Devils bounced back from adversity.
They took advantage of the unexpected change, and Scheyer demonstrated that the program is in good hands, even as they all eagerly await Krzyzewski’s return.
Banchero said that the team wanted to win it for Krzyzewski, and Scheyer joked that his mindset was, “You better win or that call to Coach K afterwards isn’t going to be fun…there's motivation, getting it done for Coach [K], and maybe some motivation not wanting to make me look bad at the same time.”
Next, and hopefully with Krzyzewski back behind the bench, Duke takes on N.C. State at home Saturday night.
Sasha Richie is a Trinity junior and the Blue Zone Editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.