In the aftermath of the University of Miami’s 80-69 win over Duke, coach Jim Larrañaga remained calm and measured when discussing the importance of Monday’s victory.
But Larrañaga couldn’t help but light up and gasp when asked about two late assists from senior center Tonye Jekiri.
“Ask these guys,” said Larrañaga , pointing to Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. “How cool were his assists?”
“Who?” asked Rodriguez, busy attending to the ice wrapped around his leg.
“Who? Our playmaker,” Larrañaga said.
The passes came on consecutive possessions from the top of the arc. With Duke cutting into Miami’s single-digit lead, Jekiri stood and delivered a pair of perfect assists. The first, a give-and-go pass that sliced between two Duke defenders, found Ja’Quan Newton. Next, he found a wide-open Davon Reed for a reverse lay-in.
He’s the most fundamentally sound big man, both guarding ball screens, down screens, playing big men in the low post. He doesn’t foul. He rebounds.
Those assists, plus a first-half pass around Brandon Ingram that led to a McClellan three-pointer, were perhaps the most apparent signs of Jekiri’s strong performance Monday night. His ability to make Duke center Marshall Plumlee uncomfortable, however, was far more important.
“Marshall Plumlee gets so many dunks in games, because when you help up, they throw it to him,” Larrañaga said. “Bam, he bangs it. Tonye did not let them get that kind of basket. He is such a smart defender. In my mind he’s the most fundamentally sound big man, both guarding ball screens, down screens, playing big men in the low post. He doesn’t foul. He rebounds.”
Jekiri’s ability to stay out of foul trouble has taken years to develop. Last year, he averaged 3.1 fouls and fouled out of five games. In 12 others, he picked up at least four personals. This season, his average has dropped a few ticks to 2.8 per game, but he has yet to foul out of a game.
After Saturday’s win against Wake Forest, Larrañaga called Jekiri a smart, fundamentally sound defender. When a 7-foot center can play almost 30 minutes per game, that’s a nice luxury. That hasn’t always been the case, though.
“Freshman year,” Larrañaga said Saturday, “he fouled [former UM players] Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble [in practice] every time they caught the ball. I mean every time. I said, ‘You do know you’re fouling?’ ‘No, I’m not.’ ‘You are.’ ”
On Monday, Jekiri finished with three personals in 34 minutes, but the first came with 7:27 to go and the third was a ticky-tack call in the final minute. At no point was he in any foul trouble.
In Miami’s attempt to contain Plumlee, who finished with seven points and nine rebounds, Jekiri’s availability can’t be overstated. Plumlee lost the ball out of bounds on several occasions and didn’t record his first field goal until 5:13 to go in the contest.
Jekiri made his own presence felt on offense. In addition to his three assists, the senior finished with seven points, and six of his 10 rebounds came on the offensive glass.
Miami’s physicality was mentioned multiple times by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who said his team hadn’t played a game like that all season. Jekiri’s play near the basket was one of the best examples of that physicality.
Over and over, especially in the first half, either Plumlee or Grayson Allen were forced to either take contested shots or kick the ball out to shooters. Two of Duke’s second-half field goals were tipped or partially blocked by Jekiri, who finished with two blocks.
“He’s such a great rim protector,” Krzyzewski said, “and so that allows your perimeter to be even more aggressive because he can erase mistakes. All the really good defensive teams have that combination.”
After Monday’s passing display, Miami might want to test him out at point guard, too.