WASHINGTON – One of Duke’s best players, Cam Reddish, was out because of a knee injury Friday night, as if Tre Jones and the rest of the Blue Devils didn’t have enough running through their minds.
There was last Sunday’s serious scare vs. Central Florida, and this Sweet 16 showdown with ACC rival Virginia Tech in the East Region, which turned into an emotionally charged 75-73 victory for Duke.
Jones wore his customized white shoes with the purple ribbon, honoring his mother, Debbie, who is battling breast cancer.
The freshman from Apple Valley had shot 1-for-8 from three-point range Sunday. UCF had purposely left him open, daring him to shoot, and it worked, as the Knights almost pulled off the upset of March.
Throw in Reddish’s injury — he’s a projected top-10 NBA draft pick — and Duke needed more from Jones this time.
Boy, did he deliver, scoring a season-high 22 points with eight assists and no turnovers.
Jones had some shaky moments, like the rest of his teammates, at the end before a packed house at Capital One Arena. He had a costly foul and missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 29 seconds left and Duke up two. But the Hokies couldn’t capitalize.
When Virginia Tech missed one last chance at the buzzer — a perfect inbound pass from Justin Robinson, but a missed shot in front of the rim from Ahmed Hill — Duke survived to advance to the Elite Eight, where the Blue Devils will play Michigan State on Sunday.
“My teammates, my coaches never lost hope in me,” Jones said in a postgame TV interview. “They kept their trust in me and kept believing in me. I mean, I keep playing for my mom in this postseason. She’s been going through a tough time, been fighting like crazy, so I’m playing for her.”
Jones hit three first-half three-pointers, one more than he had made in any game all season. Throw in a series of Zion Williamson highlights, teasers for what was ahead in the second half, and it was enough to keep the Blue Devils from falling into a big hole.
“Tre was magnificent, not good, in running our team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And not just in scoring, but eight assists, no turnovers, good D.”
The Hokies beat Duke 77-72 at home Feb. 26, and this one was still a seesaw game eight minutes into the second half, with the lead seemingly changing every possession.
Then Jones hit his fourth three pointer to put Duke up 56-52. On Virginia Tech’s next possession, Jones leaped to make a steal and pushed the ball right back up the court. He connected with Williamson for an alley-oop that seemed right out of a cartoon.
Jones fired the ball to the right of the backboard, maybe 2 feet higher than the rim. Errant pass? No, the 6-7, 285-pound Williamson adjusted his flight pattern perfectly, grabbing the ball and slamming it home.
“I know how high Zion can jump, and that’s a momentum play for us,” Jones said. “Being able to put it up there, I know he’s going to go get it.”
Jones’ fifth three pointer made it 71-66 with less than four minutes remaining. On Duke’s next possession, he passed up an open three to feed Williamson inside. It was easy to see why, as Williamson left the rim shaking with another thunderous dunk.
“Tre, I mean, he’s the obvious player of the game,” Williamson said. “He was playing so hard, I think he motivated everybody on the court to play harder.”
Even when Jones’ shots haven’t fallen, he has been pivotal for Duke. He and Williamson were among 10 semifinalists for the national defensive player of the year award. Jones led the ACC with 171 assists, and in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.49-to-1.
Jones famously tagged along to all six of Duke’s NCAA tournament games in 2015, when his brother, Tyus, helped lead the Blue Devils to a national championship. If Tre keeps playing like this, he could be celebrating his own NCAA title, back home in Minnesota.