Duke wins in R.J. Barrett’s debut, Rams hold their own

R.J. Barrett makes his presence known to Ryerson with a thunderous slam dunk.

Mississauga — There was the lady of a certain age wearing Duke Blue Devils tights with her elegant black heels. There was the concession stand selling Duke gear — $32 T-shirts anyone? – that was lined up well before the opening tip.

There was a Blue Devils travelling party that required three busses for 14 players and a small army of support staff to get them from their waterfront hotel to the sold-out Paramount Fine Food Centre and a large army of Duke fans waiting for them when they arrived.

There was a legend, Mike Krzyzewski, on the bench, presiding over a roster full of projected lottery picks, including local hero, scoring machine R.J. Barrett and freshman running mate Zion Williamson, the 6-foot-6, 280-pounder who – inexplicably – can fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

There was no one wearing Ryerson Rams tights with their heels – just guessing.

And the Rams came in one bus and their fans – well, it was hard to find them amid the Dukies in the crowd. And while Ryerson head coach Roy Rana has a world championship gold medal to his name, the next NBA player he coaches at the downtown Toronto school will be the first.

But after the anthems and the hype and the player introductions it was still 94-feet and two baskets and the Rams acquitted themselves quite well against Duke, projected as a top contender for the national championship next March.

Duke won 86-67, though not as easily as the score suggested in the first installment of their first-ever Canadian Tour which continues Friday night against University of Toronto and Sunday in Montreal against McGill.

“From a basketball perspective, a little bit disappointed, our guys in the locker room are disappointed and that’s a good thing,” said Rana. “We’re not out here to play and have a laugh; it doesn’t matter who we play, we’re trying to win.

“[But] as far as the experience is concerned, I mean, wow. Not only the fact that it’s Duke but an incredible crowd, great energy, just a real celebration of basketball in our country, really.”

The Rams led after the first quarter and were still on Duke’s heels midway through the second quarter before Duke opened up some breathing room as they led by 12 at the half, before steadily pulling away in the second half although the game never tipped into blowout territory – a tribute to the Rams quality and their effort. It was close enough that Krzyzewski was resorted to working the officials like it was an SEC tournament game at one point when a call didn’t go his way.

“I thought we were a little nervous to start the game, we had seven turnovers in the first quarter,” said Krzyzewski. “They [Ryerson] were good, they forced them, but I thought we were nervous and the ball looked like a hot potato for us, they beat us to loose balls and they’re good.”

But there’s a reason Duke pays Krzyzewski $9 million a season to coach — which is quite possibly more than the combined basketball budgets of every U Sports program in Canada, and it’s not to lose exhibition games.

So Duke won which was supposed to happen.

What isn’t supposed to happen is for Ryerson to hold eight the 10 Duke scholarship players to three points total in the first half and 23 for the game; or for Ryerson sophomore seven-footer Tanor Ngom to have the dunk of the night as he pump-faked and went baseline to power down on Duke’s Alex O’Connell in the first quarter, forcing the Duke starter out of the game and straight to hospital to be examined for a possible facial fracture.

But there is only so much effort and execution can do against superior talent and the two headlining members of Duke’s vaunted freshman class – Barrett and Williamson – in the end had too much for Ryerson to contain, which is why they will be vying to be the No.1 pick in the NBA draft next June.

They combined to score 63 of Ryerson’s 80 points by the time they checked up with three minutes left — Barrett with 34 and Williamson with 29, although they needed 53 shots to get them.

Ryerson was led by 6-foo-8 shooting guard JV Mukama who scored 20 points on 13 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds, while Ngom had 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks. Had the Rams shot better than 5-of-31 from three, the final score might have been different, as they held Duke to 42 per cent shooting.

It’s subjective, but Williamson came by them more easily, leaping for put-backs and soaring through the lane for up-and-unders. Most impressive was a solid three-point stroke that has taken second-billing to his prodigious dunking exploits.

“For people that have seen my play, they know there’s a lot more to my game,” said Williamson who had four assists without a turnover, hit three tripes in four attempts and grabbed 13 rebounds too. “That’s kind of another reason I came to Duke, coach K saw more than just dunking in my game and he told me if I trusted him he could help me showcase my ability and I trust him and so far it’s working.”

But the dunks were some pleasing eye candy – he combined with Barrett on an alley-oop early in the fourth quarter that seemed implausible given how far Williamson was outside the paint when Barrett threw the pass, but was all the better for it.

A moment later Williamson tried to return the favour but his pass to Barrett was a bit low and a bit late and Barrett couldn’t finish the play, but their chemistry looks promising.

“I saw him right at halfcourt. We looked at each other and we knew it was going up,” said Barrett. “All I have to do is put it up there and he’s gonna do the rest. He catches it anywhere.”

The arena full of Duke fans were impressed, and likely the Ryerson fans were too.

Barrett was advertised even if he looked a little anxious – as his five first half turnovers might indicate — while making his college debut within walking distance of his Mississauga home.

“[There was] a lot of excitement, a little nervous with it being the first time wearing a Duke jersey,” he said. “A lot of guys on the team had to step up. We have some key guys out. Everybody’s trying to figure it out.”

How many friends and family at the game?

“I saw a whole section of my family and friends. Everybody was everywhere. It was just a good environment to be in.”

Barrett scored the way he has at every level from high school to the senior men’s national team – getting low on the dribble, hunting bodies and drawing fouls as he takes his defender to the basket. He’ll have better shooting nights – he was 12-of-30 from the floor and 2-of-8 from three — but, he bullied his way to the line 14 times, was a terror in transition and was still able to lead his team with what was at best his ‘B’ game after a week spent as the unofficial tour guide for his team.

Duke was without two of their anticipated key freshman – Cam Reddish and point guard Tre Jones – and it is apparent Duke will need them as their upper classmen are role players that will be looked upon to support rather than carry.

Those jobs will clearly fall to Barrett and Williamson and based on early returns, they’re more than capable.

“RJ and Zion carried us,” said Krzyzewski, “But that’s what they should do and they did a good job of it.”

But Ryerson can head into their season with their heads held high, fully confident that even against the biggest names in college basketball, they’re more than capable too.

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