NEW YORK — Everyone went to Madison Square Garden on Thursday night expecting to see the biggest show on college basketball: Zion Williamson — flanked by fellow top-five picks RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish.
Trae Young was there. Kevin Knox, Emmanuel Mudiay. Dozens of NBA executives. Jimmy Butler.
And maybe everyone left talking about Zion Williamson anyway, since he posted a double-double and led the team in scoring and rebounding in Duke’s 69-58 win over Texas Tech.
But that wasn’t the case in the Duke locker room. And it wasn’t the case at the post-game news conference.
The story on Thursday night was the smallest headliner of the four five-star freshmen, the unsung star of this Duke team: Tre Jones.
“Tre was the key to the game,” Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “He just turned it around for us with six steals. … It was magnificent to see. He did a hell of a job, as good on the ball as we’ve had starting with Amaker, Hurley, Wojo, Duhon. He’s right there and tonight, maybe better.”
Thursday was without question Duke’s worst offensive game of the year. The Blue Devils shot 3-for-20 from 3-point range; struggled mightily any time Texas Tech was able to get back and set up its halfcourt defense; and turned the ball over 19 times, including an astonishing nine offensive fouls. Barrett struggled shooting the ball, Williamson fouled out and Reddish couldn’t find any rhythm.
In fact, Duke’s offensive performance against Texas Tech on a per-possession basis was worse than that of USC, Northern Colorado and Memphis.
On any other night, that should have been the recipe for a Texas Tech win. Slow down the big three and Duke can be beat.
But maybe we should add a fourth member to that elite corps.
Jones completely dominated the game with his on-ball defense. Leading up to the game, Tech head coach Chris Beard mentioned to his team he didn’t want them trying to bring the ball up against Jones if he picked up fullcourt. Pass it to a teammate who wasn’t being guarded by Jones, and have him initiate the offense. Attacking Jones just wasn’t a matchup worth trying.
Jones noticed that strategy in the opening few minutes.
“Early on when I saw they were having other guys bring it up, I felt like they were doing that for a reason,” Jones said. “When I got my chance to pick up full, I wanted to make an impact. From the first time I did that, until the rest of the game.”
Jones single-handedly changed the momentum of Thursday’s game on multiple occasions. He had two steals in the first four minutes to help Duke get out to an 8-0 lead. He had back-to-back steals midway through the first half once Texas Tech pushed out to a seven-point lead.
And in the second half, after Tech once again extended its lead to seven and had the ball with a chance to further bury the Blue Devils, Jones scored seven straight Duke points and picked up another steal.
“Our team just needed a spark,” Jones said. “We were real flat there, didn’t have a lot of energy. Felt like they were feeding off of their fans for sure, trying to build on that lead. We needed someone to start making plays, and my team was able to set me up for those things.”
Jones isn’t going to get the accolades of his classmates, mostly because he’s not a projected top-five pick. But he holds it all together. He keeps the three stars happy, he’s the best on-ball defender on the team, he takes care of the ball and he’s simply a winner.
Krzyzewski went so far as to call him a “godsend” after Thursday’s game.
“I’m so excited about coaching him,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s like coaching on the U.S. team, you have LeBron, Chris Paul, they make real-time [adjustments]. There aren’t many who can get their teams to do that. Tre can do that. He’s got it. What he did tonight was one of the best performances. It was a big, big-time performance by that kid.”
The story moving forward will still be about Duke’s star power, the Blue Devils’ ability to simply make plays and beat teams because they’re more talented and can score whenever they want. But Thursday was different.
It wasn’t the star power.
It was the supporting cast. Not only Jones, but also Jack White. He came off the bench to bury two corner 3-pointers in the second half after Duke went 0-for-10 from behind the arc in the first half. He also scrapped on the defensive end, and helped slow down Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver after Culver put the Red Raiders on his back offensively.
It was Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils forced 24 turnovers and turned them into 21 points. They also held Texas Tech without a field goal for the final six-plus minutes of the game and turned a two-point deficit into an 11-point win.
And while Williamson and Barrett ended up being the team’s top two scorers once again, Thursday showed the Blue Devils are more than that — starting with Jones.
“To win a game like we had to win tonight, huge,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m lucky. This is not a good group, this is a really great group of kids.”