Paulus Spirits Duke To Garden Victory Over Zags

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Paulus played his career game

Dec. 22, 2006


By Bryan Armen Graham


Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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NEW YORK -- Maybe a second start is just what Greg Paulus needed.


Following last week's break for final exams, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took his sophomore point guard aside and urged him to put his tumultuous fall behind him and refocus on the road ahead.


"I said, 'OK, the season starts now. This is your first game. Don't take anything that you had with you forward,'" Krzyzewski said. "He's had a hell of a fall with his broken foot. He's been sick; we thought he had mono. He has been working extra hard."


Never harder than Thursday night before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, where Paulus logged 39-and-a-half minutes, scored a career-high 20 points and added four assists to spirit sixth-ranked Duke to a 61-54 victory over No. 22-ranked Gonzaga in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.


"Paulus had his best game of his career," Krzyzewski said. "He played with such a verve."


Only the wayward foot of a reporter prevented the Syracuse, N.Y., native from playing the full 40 minutes with all nine members of his family and a couple dozen vocal hometown supporters in attendance. At the 14:22 mark of the second half, Paulus came around a top screen, got a hand on the ball and fell out of bounds beneath the media table opposite the Gonzaga bench. He emerged with a trickle of blood running down his chin after striking the shin of a writer and left the game as trainers attended to the cut.


Paulus was back in the game at the next horn -- a mere 58 seconds later -- and the hustle play sparked a 14-8 run which helped crack open a game that seemed destined for a neck-and-neck finish.


"They play so darn hard. You've got guys like Paulus diving into the scorer's table and flying around. That's what great coaches do: Their teams reflect their beliefs," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "[Krzyzewski] is a great coach and he's got a firm conviction on defense and that emanates to all his players."


Paulus, who matched a season low with one turnover, agreed that these games following the finals breather represent a much-needed fresh start for this good-and-getting-better group.


"We've tried to make it a new beginning," Paulus said. "With some of the things that have gone on -- inconsistency and some of the injuries -- we've just wanted to get into that positive mindset, the attacking mindset. We're trying to get re-energized, and I've been trying to do that the past couple games."


The line surrounding Thursday's highly anticipated showdown -- the inaugural matchup between two of the winningest programs of the 1990s -- is that this contest should have taken place a year ago when J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison were waging their high-profile battle for the national scoring title.


But despite its relative lack of star power, the first-ever meeting between Duke and Gonzaga proved compelling theater.


Defense has always been the primary point of concern for the Bulldogs. But Few sagely alternated between man-to-man and matchup zone defensive sets to limit Duke to 7-of-31 shooting during the first half. During one icy nine-minute stretch, the Blue Devils put down exactly zero field goals.


Duke trailed 21-20 following the slow-paced first half but circumstances would have been much worse if not for Paulus, who almost single-handedly kept the Blue Devils in the game with eight points and a pair of assists -- accounting for 13 of his team's 20 points. Paulus said that Krzyzewski's orders for the second half were clear.


"Just to keep shooting it," Paulus said. "Coach said we shot something like 20 percent in the first half. We had some good looks, we were moving the ball, getting what we wanted. It was just basically shoot the same shots and shoot them with confidence."


And shoot Paulus did. The Christian Brothers Academy alum drilled a three-pointer from the baseline and converted a nifty reverse lay-up before the first TV timeout of the second stanza -- amidst a back-and-forth stretch spanning halftime which saw the Zags and Devils trade the lead on 11 straight scoring possessions.


Later in the half with Duke having staked some breathing room, Paulus received a highlight-reel pass from Josh McRoberts and drilled a three-pointer from the corner to open a 48-40 advantage -- his team's biggest advantage of the game. Any lingering effects from his recent illness or fractured metatarsal were undetectable.


"I'm trying to get better," Paulus said. "I'm not where I'd like to be, but I know I'm getting better and I can feel myself trying to get back in shape and trying to get my skills back."


For all his heroics, it was a play that Paulus didn't make which garnered the highest praise from his Hall of Fame coach.


With three-and-a-half minutes remaining in regulation and Duke nursing a four-point lead, Paulus anticipated a dribble hand-off between Derek Raivio and Josh Heytvelt near the elbow and lunged for a steal. The ball went out of bounds and Gonzaga retained possession but Krzyzewski admired the initiative.


"Plays like that, when you see a kid making them -- even if he didn't get it done -- the fact that he sees them and attempts them shows that he's moving forward," Krzyzewski said. "With kids who are developing, you see him doing those types of things -- to me as a teacher, you know that they're improving."


As he grooms the youngest team of his 27-year tenure for the Atlantic Coast Conference gauntlet (which opens Jan. 7 against Virginia Tech), steady improvement is just what Krzyzewski needs to see.