Win over UNC shows Duke gelling at perfect time

Freshmen class finally providing reinforcements for stretch run

Mark Dolejs—X02835
Feb 9

The Duke-Carolina game can be an overwhelming experience, especially when it’s a player’s first time experiencing it.Jayson Tatum said that, like so many past freshmen in both shades of blue, he was nervous at the start of the game. It took him until halftime to get out of his funk.Fellow freshman Harry Giles wasn’t buying that.”Ain’t got time to be in a haze,” Giles said, as he bounced around manically, trying to stay seated in his locker room chair. “You gotta go. You don’t have time to soak it all in. That’s for when I was watching. Now it’s time to be a part of the game.”Giles spent the first five weeks of the season watching, as he recovered from knee surgery. Marques Bolden, a third freshman five-star, also missed the first five weeks with an injury. Tatum missed closer to three.For the first month of their college basketball careers, three of the top freshmen in the country were unable to work with their new teammates, learn the speed and complexity of the college game and contribute to a Duke team that was the consensus pick for number one in the ACC and nation.”We envisioned all these grueling practices, five-on-five,” Mike Krzyzewski said earlier this season. “It hasn’t turned out that way.”Now, Giles, Tatum and Bolden have actually had some time on the floor, and Duke has been able to practice with its fully-operational Death Star of a roster for a few weeks.As Thursday’s 86-78 win over North Carolina showed, Duke is finally starting to become what everyone expected four months ago.Giles, who a few weeks ago was described by coaches as “being where he would have been in October and November” hit all three of the shots he took and contributed on defense, blocking a shot, forcing a travel on UNC and deflecting a few passes.Frank Jackson, the only freshman contributor who has been around all season, hit all four of his shots, too. Bolden, still a work in progress, contributed valuable minutes in the first half, and Tatum took control of the game after halftime, scoring 19 points and throwing down a thunderous dunk that energized crowd and team.”I’m really proud of my freshmen big guys (Giles and Bolden),” Krzyzewski said, after Duke was able to outrebound a UNC team that had been dominating the boards on a school-record pace. “They’re coming on. For them to get the minutes they did today—as a player, you’ve got a chance to be tight in a game like this. You get nervous. It’s a big-time game. They haven’t played at that level.”The kids are growing up, and, in effect, giving Duke the nation’s best recruiting class as a mid-February reinforcement for the stretch run.”There aren’t the interruptions,” Krzyzewski said. “We have had more interruptions than six teams. I mean really. No excuses, just that’s the way it is. Now we have come together. … Continuity and preparation – we have more of it right now.”They also have one of the nation’s best recruits, refusing to waste any of his one-and-done college career by being lost in a haze. They have another of the nation’s best bouncing back from an off first half to carry his team down the stretch.”That’s a sign of maturity for him,” Grayson Allen said of Tatum.”It’s really, really cool to see some of the young guys step up tonight,” Luke Kennard added. “It was huge. We all grew up tonight. We were all together. We were all tough and very unselfish. It was really fun to play.”The freshmen, and with them the entire team, have gone from relying on raw talent to relying on each other. That’s something that’s required, in order to win the battles on the ACC schedule, and after them, the wars of March.”That’s a good lesson for us,” Krzyzewski said. “When we lost the lead, when they took the lead, doing that, the game could’ve been over. Instead our team got really tough, and we were able to pull it out.”Pulling games out is something Duke has made a habit of, recently, and it bodes well for the limited amount of time the freshmen have left this season.”We were behind, compared to other teams, in building chemistry, because so many guys were hurt,” Tatum said. “We’re trying to catch up, but we’re moving at a fast rate. It shows with these past four wins. They were four tough Ws. The will for us to win that Wake Forest game, coming back from so many points down. To go on the road and beat a great Notre Dame team. We were just in tough tough situations. We fought through so much adversity. We’re building each and every day to get better.””Maturity’s a hell of a thing,” Krzyzewski said.