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Checkmate: Coach K puts the game in the hands of AJ Griffin, and ‘it just worked’

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Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Virginia, when Tony Bennett had De’Andre Hunter, Braxton Key, had bigger guys who can guard anybody 1-5.

Tony Bennett doesn’t have a Hunter or a Key this year, and Mike Krzyzewski exploited that.

“We went to an open set, and we were going to attack the big matchup if they stayed big. Attacking it is one thing, for our guys to see it is another. It just worked. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t work,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s 65-61 win over Virginia Wednesday night.

What Coach K did was take advantage of his roster flexibility, which is something that Bennett has had for years, but doesn’t this year.

Krzyzewski has five guys pegged to go in the 2022 NBA Draft, and a sixth guy who was a five-star prep recruit.

He can go big, he can go small – and he can punch whatever button he needs to depending on the situation.

Wednesday night, up one at the under-4 media timeout, what he decided on was going small, with a five-high look to spread the floor and force Virginia to guard everybody on the perimeter.

What this did was put 6’11” sophomore Kadin Shedrick on an island against projected lottery pick AJ Griffin, a 6’6” slasher who’d struggled through the game’s first 36 minutes, shooting just 1-of-8 from the floor.

This after scoring just two points on 1-of-5 shooting in 24 minutes in Duke’s 69-68 loss to Virginia back on Feb. 7.

This was the matchup to exploit, though it also meant putting the game in the hands of a guy who was 2-of-13 against Virginia this season.

“I’m really proud of AJ, because he had such a tough shooting night, but we have confidence in him that his next shot is going to go in, and three of his next shots went in in the last four minutes, and God bless. So, it just happened to work,” Krzyzewski said.

With Duke up 52-51 at the 3:39 mark, Griffin hit a three over Shedrick to push the lead to four. Virginia answered with a floater in the lane from Armaan Franklin to get the margin back to two. Then it was Griffin over Shedrick again, with 2:40 on the clock, to put Duke up five.

Virginia answered again, with a Jayden Gardner twisting layup, and Bennett called timeout, to get Shedrick out of the game in favor of Kody Stattmann, a 6’7” guard, to try to counter Griffin’s advantage on the perimeter.

If Krzyzewski was at all tempted to respond by subbing Griffin out for 7’0” center Mark Williams, it didn’t show.

Instead, he ran another play for Griffin, this time isolating him one-on-one on Stattmann, giving Griffin space to take Stattmann to the rim, where he converted a bucket and got fouled.

He missed the free throw, but that was eight points in three possessions for the freshman.

“I thought his best move was the two-point [basket], because he had to really muck it out,” Krzyzewski said.

Krzyzewski, basically, has one more guy than Bennett does this year.

“Griffin hitting some of those shots, and then the plays that they made, was tough,” Bennett said. “We had Kadin in, and we wanted to put him on Paolo [Banchero] when they went small. We didn’t quite have a matchup, we tried Kody [Stattmann]. So a lot of things you looked at, and he did hit some tough shots.”

Story by Chris Graham

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