Williams makes plays, freshmen step up for Duke

NEW YORK -- Look, Shelden Williams was a returning all-American. He was a pick by many, including some of us here at ESPN.com, to be the national player of the year.

So, it shouldn't come as a major surprise that the Duke senior forward lit up Memphis for 30 points and eight rebounds in 39 minutes of Duke's 70-67 NIT Season Tip-Off title win over Memphis on Friday night.

But what wasn't known until Friday was how much better he is with freshman Josh McRoberts next to him inside and McRoberts' classmate Greg Paulus at the point feeding both of them in the post.

But Williams made two of the most significant plays of the game by himself.

They were, as Memphis coach John Calipari said, hustle plays.

Williams' tip-in off a Sean Dockery miss gave Duke a 69-67 lead with 32 seconds remaining. His tip-back off a second missed free throw by Lee Melchionni ended up in Dockery's hands and put him at the line, where he made 1 of 2 free throws for the final margin.

"[The plays] weren't anything with skill or anything else," Calipari said. "They missed a layup and then they offensive rebounded, simple effort. They missed two free throws and they offensive rebounded. That was within the last 50 seconds. That was the ballgame."

Williams said he knew he couldn't grab the missed free throw with both hands so he had to kick it back out to "J.J. [Redick] or Sean."

Redick said the Blue Devils work on the tip-back all the time. So, we get it. Those were more learned, and astute plays, then necessarily innate.

But the rest of his game is becoming a combination of his sheer force with McRoberts' maturing post abilities. And with Paulus emerging as the choice at the point, and oh yeah, that Redick guy on the perimeter to knock down shots, then Williams becomes even more effective.

Redick was shut down in the second half by Rodney Carney. He didn't score in the second 20 after putting up 15 in the first half. But that didn't matter as much with the way Williams and McRoberts were playing off each other.

"Josh helped me a lot," Williams said. "He became a low-post presence. We haven't really seen that this year. He's taking the ball to the rim, taking his time. He'll get a lot of one-on-one situations because I create a lot of attention down low and he took advantage of that."

McRoberts, who eventually fouled out with Duke up five with four minutes left, finished with an efficient 6 of 9 shooting, 12 points and four boards in 31 minutes.

No one should be stunned by McRoberts' skill. He could have easily gone to the NBA last spring out of high school. But it just took a few games for him to become truly assertive. With guard DeMarcus Nelson out for four-to-10 weeks with a hairline fracture in his right ankle, the onus was on McRoberts to play bigger in every sense.

"With him out I tried to step it up more and hopefully I can help Shelden even more the rest of the season," said McRoberts, who should have an even larger role on the Blue Devils than Marvin Williams did a year ago on North Carolina. "As the season progresses we'll get better playing together."

"[Williams] is the strongest guy on our team but it's not all about strength," said McRoberts, who added that he'll probably get a little Redick road treatment when he plays at his native in-state school Indiana Wednesday night in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. "Toughness kicked in when we needed it most."

Williams was in foul trouble Wednesday against Drexel, playing with four fouls for most of the half. He had averaged 14.7 points in three previous NIT games, 16 overall when the Davidson game is factored in, too.

But you knew Williams would have a game like this sooner than later. With Memphis needing to watch McRoberts, Williams was able to take whoever was tossed his way (Kareem Cooper, Robert Dozier, Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts or Simplice Njoya).

Williams said he hadn't gotten into the flow yet this season, until Friday. Dockery said the Blue Devils were waiting for a game like this after Williams had been a bit hesitant Wednesday night.

"He knows what's at hand with this being his senior season," Duke assistant coach Chris Collins said. "He played with a sense of urgency. [Paulus] playing that way and [McRoberts] helping him out on the boards helps him. That means the burden is always on him to get every rebound. They keep getting better and better and will continue to be huge for us."

Collins' reference to Paulus was just with his eight assists and four turnovers and one seal in 38 minutes. Sure, he didn't shoot as well, going 1-for-7, but his first half of six assists and one turnover helped guide Duke. The confidence in him from everyone on the roster is growing with each possession.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said that McRoberts and Paulus had deferred a bit to the seniors prior to Friday but got more assertive.

Redick said every time he turned around in the second half Paulus was making a big play.

Memphis has its share of star freshmen. The Tigers, who should be in play for a Final Four berth after this run in the NIT, have a stud in Shawne Williams, and an impressive lot with Antonio Anderson, Cooper, Robert Dozier, Douglas-Roberts and Andre Allen.

Still, they weren't ready to handle late-game situations as well as Duke's veteran players. And it didn't help matters that guard Darius Washington was not 100 percent with a thigh contusion.

As talented as Memphis is and as well as the Tigers played throughout this tournament, they couldn't finish like Williams did Friday.

"He doesn't stop playing," Calipari said. "We got in foul trouble and our guys wanted to complain. But I was watching and they were late getting to the ball … the last two plays were effort plays, an offensive rebound -- who tipped it? Williams. And who got the last offensive rebound? Shelden. Think about it. Those were the plays."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.