HOUSTON — Breaking down No. 1 seed Duke’s 63-57 victory against No. 5 seed Utah in the NCAA South Region semifinals at NRG Stadium on Friday night.
WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT: Duke has the potential top pick in the NBA draft in Jahlil Okafor. But the Blue Devils are great when fellow freshman Justise Winslow excels. And he excelled against Utah.
The 6-foot-6 Houston native is extremely athletic and versatile. And fifth-seeded Utah had no answer for Winslow, who was terrific overall and had one of the game’s key baskets: A hanging short jumper that also drew a foul with just under 4 minutes to play. He finished with 21 points on 8 of 13 shooting.
BOX SCORE: Blue Devils 63, Utes 57
“Coach tells me throughout the season, ‘stay aggressive, try to get to the basket.’ ” said Winslow, who estimated he had 100 personal friends in the audience. “If they’re sagging off, shoot my bullets. Whenever they sag off, get to the lane. It’s something I’m capable of. At the same time I’m trying to stay aggressive and just make plays.”
The other clear observation from this regional semifinal was that Utah had a terrible time shooting in cavernous NRG Stadium. Some of that was because of Duke’s defense, but not all of it. At the game’s start, neither team could shoot. It took four minutes for the first field goal to be scored. At the first television timeout, the teams had combined for 2-for-17 shooting from the field. Duke’s shooting recovered. Utah? Not so much.
Utah got some open shots. But in the first 12 minutes of the first half alone, Brandon Taylor and Delon Wright were among the Utes to toss up airballs. The first 10 Utah points were all scored by frontcourt players. The rest of the team was 0-for-13 from the floor. NRG Stadium played some of the best defense of the tournament.
THE BIG PICTURE: After uneven postseason performances of late — opening-game losses to Lehigh (2012) and Mercer (2014) — Duke now has all the ingredients necessary to win a national championship. Freshmen Okafor, Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones are gems. Senior Quinn Cook is the emotional leader.
Duke Blue Devils forward Justise Winslow had a double-double to pace Duke. (Photo: Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports)
Two issues: This is a season in which one undefeated team — Kentucky — is storming through the bracket. Yes, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has toppled one unbeaten in the Final Four (1991 UNLV) en route to his first national title. But the task this season will be formidable. A potential Kentucky-Duke national title game would be rich, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The other issue is that second-seeded Gonzaga will be no pushover in Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup (5:05 p.m. ET). The Bulldogs have scoring and plenty of size as they attempt to break through that glass ceiling and finally reach the Final Four. It should be a terrific region final.
Utah concluded a sterling season in which it returned to national relevance under coach Larry Krystkowiak, one of the game’s brighter basketball minds. The Utes will lose senior Wright, who will be playing in the NBA next season, but as long as Krystkowiak is on the sideline, Utah will be a contender.
THE DECIDING PLAY: The first half, and much of the game, turned when Wright picked up a controversial third foul with just under 5 minutes to play. Not only did that send the Utes’ best player to the bench, but Krzyzewski wisely then employed a zone press. That thoroughly flustered the Utes, forcing them into a 10-second violation on one possession and another turnover the next.
The Blue Devils went on an 8-0 run after Wright went to the bench. Considering how offensively challenged Utah looked throughout, eight straight points were worth more than just eight straight points. Wright struggled mightily shooting throughout the game.
THE TWEET: Cavernous NRG Stadium looked especially cavernous Friday night. Whether it was the presence of three western teams or other factors, the region semifinals here were not well attended.
ALL THE HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SWEET 16