There were plenty of reasons why Duke should have been beaten by North Carolina on Saturday night in college basketball’s biggest rivalry, but freshman point guard Tyus Jones negated all of them.
For any team that ends up on Duke’s path in the NCAA tournament, think twice before watching a replay of this 84-77 victory on the road against a Top 20 team.
What you’ll see is an opponent who can win going away even on a night when its offense can’t hit a basket for nearly 10 minutes, even when its player-of-the-year candidate is a non-factor for 30 minutes and even when its shallow rotation loses a key man to foul trouble.
Thanks to Jones, the third-ranked Blue Devils overcame all of that at the Dean Smith Center, in front of a North Carolina crowd that was hell-bent on driving the No. 19 Tar Heels to a badly needed signature victory.
Jones, despite suffering a fall that hammered his tailbone and sent him to the bench briefly in the second half, lit up every statistical category.
His 24 points were the game high and also a career best. He was perfection personified at the free-throw line, going 12-of-12. He handed out seven assists and likely would have hit double figures there if not for the 9:56 stretch when the rim disappeared from the Blue Devils’ GPS. He picked off six rebounds out on the perimeter, and his quick hands also grabbed three steals.
He accomplished all of that and had just one turnover while playing in a building that feasts on visiting freshmen, especially those who have made the eight-mile hop from Duke’s campus in Durham.
But for a few minutes it appeared Duke’s hopes for a season sweep of the Tar Heels would have to be accomplished without Jones. He stayed down on the floor, writhing in pain, after a collision under the basket with 13:04 left in the game.
Jones immediately ended Duke’s worries when he returned, burying a three-point shot and then setting up an on-the-run three-pointer by Quinn Cook with a no-look pass.
“I had to play through a good amount of pain, but in a game like this that’s the last thing you think about,” Jones told ESPN in an on-air interview right after the game.
What doesn’t show up in the box score next to Jones’ name is the wave of defensive pressure he led in the second half. That was the answer to Carolina’s superior depth, as suddenly the Tar Heels’ big men faced the task of handling the ball more and failed.
It also put the spotlight on the tandem of Jones and senior guard Cook, which now figures to enter the NCAA tournament with near-unanimous support as the nation’s best backcourt.
As we are certain to be reminded of many times, teams tend to go only as far in the tournament as their guards take them, and Jones and Cook have Final Four written all over them.
Cook’s 20 points included four three-pointers, but more importantly, not a single turnover.
For two starting guards to have only one turnover between them in a game with stakes this high is virtually unheard of and should send the Blue Devils into next week’s ACC tournament bubbling with confidence.
Against North Carolina, they proved they can win big in difficult circumstances even when Jahlil Okafor doesn’t look like a Wooden Award finalist. The freshman center finished with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, but he wasn’t really in the mix for the first 30 minutes.
Carolina threw a variety of bodies at him early and wore him down but still couldn’t win.
The Tar Heels also got Duke’s other big man, Justise Winslow, into foul trouble that kept him on the bench for much of the second half. That should have been a formula for success against a Duke team that goes only eight deep.
But the Tar Heels didn’t have an answer for Jones, even though his 22 points in Duke’s Feb. 18 overtime win had given them fair warning.
Saturday wasn't Jones' first big performance in a huge road game. He also had 22 points when Duke won on the road against then-No. 2 Wisconsin in December, and he had another 22 in the January win at St. John’s when Mike Krzyzewski notched his 1,000th career victory.
All of this now makes it seem a little ridiculous that there once were questions about whether Jones and Cook could coexist in the same backcourt.
Krzyzewski brought that up last month after a win against Florida State, telling The Chronicle (Duke’s school paper), "Remember when we started the year, I don't know if you remember, but everyone's saying, 'How's that going to work out?' Well, it's worked out pretty darn well."
The sad folks at North Carolina certainly can verify.
Tom Weir covered 14 Final Fours as a columnist for USA Today.