The performance was exhilarating, something people will talk about many years from now, considering the size and scope of the moment.
That Tyus Jones elevated above the pack when the situation begged for it should surprise no one. That’s always been his nature, here in Minnesota, in college and again in front of the nation Monday night.
“He’s a closer,” said Zach Goring, who coached Jones at Apple Valley High School for five years.
If coffee is for closers, Jones was guzzling Starbucks in college basketball’s biggest game.
A freshman in rank only, Jones looked like a veteran of the big stage in hoisting the Duke Blue Devils in the second half and carrying them to a national championship.
In doing so, Jones reaffirmed to a wider audience what he so often showed in his prep days at Apple Valley.
He’s fearless. And he’s remarkably poised and self-assured with the ball in his hands.
If Jones felt the pressure of the biggest game of his basketball life, he revealed no signs of nerves against the gritty Wisconsin Badgers. Especially in the second half when Duke’s star center, Jahlil Okafor, battled foul trouble and Duke needed someone else to carry the torch.
Jones scored 19 of his 23 points after halftime. He hit clutch three-pointers. He stayed in attack mode coming off screens. He made all seven of his free throws in the game.
He even emerged with a catchy nickname, “Tyus Stones.’’ No explanation required.
Jones carries himself as a cool customer. He played with a hellbent attitude in the second half that screamed: “Don’t worry, fellas, I’m not letting us lose this game.”
“It’s amazing,” Goring said, “because that’s the same type of stuff he used to do in high school basketball.”
His performance also provided the perfect rebuttal to the conversation regarding freshmen eligibility that is starting to percolate among college administrators. Imagine if Jones — and Duke’s three other terrific freshmen — were forced to watch as spectators while serving a mandatory redshirt season.
We wouldn’t have witnessed one of the great performances in tournament history. That’s another reason why the needle shouldn’t move very far in that discussion.
Jones’ save-the-day act left the sports world buzzing and shifted Minnesota’s provincialism into high gear. Nothing wrong with feeling that pride and connection, though, because we’ve watched Jones grow up before our eyes under the microscope as a basketball prodigy.
He played with kids two grades older in travel basketball. He started on Apple Valley’s varsity as an eighth-grader. He won a state title as a junior. He was recognized as the nation’s best point guard and traveled internationally with USA Basketball.
How many people in this state despise Duke but cheered for Jones?
“What Tyus has done for Apple Valley basketball has been amazing,” Goring said.
Goring says he’s never seen Jones act nervous on the court. Not as an eighth-grader, or as a top prospect with all eyes on him.
The best athletes maintain that competitive composure in pressure moments. As a junior at Apple Valley, Jones made all 18 of his free throws in the state championship game.
On Monday, he made all seven of his free throws and drained critical jump shots.
“He just has that calm demeanor,” Goring said.
Jones seems to have an inner gauge that alerts him when to take control. He usually acts as a conductor early in games, running the offense, getting others involved, picking his spots. He did that in high school, too.
But once the game calls for it, he flips the switch to Tyus Time. He owned the second half of a 10-point victory at Wisconsin in early December. He scored 17 points in the second half of a victory at North Carolina.
And he refused to lose Monday night.
Goring watched the game on TV with some friends and noticed Jones’ aggressiveness early. Goring told his viewing party, “He’s going to go for it tonight.”
Jones has a big decision to make now: Return to school or enter the NBA draft.
He hasn’t tipped his hand either way, but many predict that he’ll declare for the draft. Sure, he could use another year of college basketball to gain some strength, but I’m not sure that he would significantly improve his stock with another season on campus.
Whatever he decides, Jones left his mark on March Madness with a second-half performance that was both captivating and not all that surprising.
“That’s Tyus,” Goring said.
Fearless on the big stage, poised when it mattered most.