The Blue Devils have been nemeses like no other for the Jackets, as Duke has won the past 14 games of the series and 38 of the past 41 games in the series, a reign that extends back to the end of the Bobby Cremins era in the late 1990′s. It isn’t just Wright and his current teammates who haven’t had the pleasure of defeating Duke. Since Tech’s last win in the series – on Jan. 9, 2010 at the old Alexander Memorial Coliseum – no fewer than 69 Jackets players have donned the white and gold without experiencing a win over the Blue Devils.
“It’s still annoying that we were never able to get at least one win there,” former Jackets star Ben Lammers, now playing professionally in Germany, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It seems like the team is doing very well this year. Hopefully they can do it for me.”
For Wright and Jose Alvarado, who will be senior night honorees along with Bubba Parham, Jordan Usher and walk-ons Shaheed Medlock and Malachi Rice, their first encounter with Duke was in their freshman season. It was an 80-69 loss to the No. 9 Blue Devils at McCamish on Feb. 11, 2018. Duke would end that season in the elite eight, Tech with a 13-19 record.
That night, Alvarado – energetic but untamed – turned the ball over three times in the first 12 minutes before falling hard to the floor and suffering a season-ending fracture and dislocation of his elbow. For Wright, the substance of his season was only beginning. So ineffective was Wright as a freshman that Pastner put him and others on a “redshirt” plan in which their time and energy was directed to skill development and strength training over actually preparing for games.
Among Pastner’s reasons for keeping Wright on the bench was a low-effort attempt to chase down a North Carolina player on a fast break. Speaking Monday, Wright said Pastner chewed him out for a week about that play.
“He was like, ‘This is why you’re not playing,’” Wright said. “Those effort plays, you’re not making them, and I don’t know if I can put you in to make those plays or not. He just kept harping on me about that. I was like, I don’t like this feeling.”
Put into the game as the Blue Devils were routing the Jackets, Wright made a play in the second half that signaled what he could become. After a Josh Okogie 3-pointer rimmed out, Wright attacked the glass for a putback dunk that brought McCamish to its feet. The basket reduced what had been a 26-point lead to 12, compelling Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to call timeout.
Tech’s steady progress can be measured in its matchups with Duke since then. When Wright and Alvarado were sophomores, the Jackets held a 38-31 lead over the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium with 15:43 remaining before five Tech turnovers in the next seven possessions enabled Duke to go on a 13-0 run and head to a 66-53 win.
Alvarado played 39 minutes, scoring seven points on 3-for-10 shooting with seven rebounds and six assists, but also five turnovers. Pastner saw fit to give Wright only seven minutes of playing time. That Tech team improved by one win, to 14-18.
As juniors, Alvarado and Wright took on Duke when the Blue Devils were ranked second with a 13-1 record. In front of a sold-out McCamish, Tech went into the final TV timeout down 63-61, but the Jackets missed their final 11 field-goal tries and lost 73-64. Wright collected a double-double, 12 points and 10 rebounds, but was 5-for-17, including an ill-advised 3-point try in the last minute. Alvarado scored 18 with five assists and two steals, but also four turnovers, part of 17 committed by the team.
“I want to get the five-star recruit, but if we haven’t gotten that guy, we have to have five-star development,” Pastner said after the game, “and every one of our guys has gotten better.”
It began to show more clearly later in the season, as the Jackets won six of their last seven to finish at 17-14.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
In the teams’ most recent meeting, Jan. 26 in Durham, the Jackets took the Blue Devils into the final minute. Wright and Alvarado both played all 40 minutes, irreplaceable to Pastner. Alvarado showed the form that has gained him first-team All-ACC consideration, scoring 26 on 10-for-15 shooting with five assists, four rebounds and three steals. Wright scored 12 with 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks, though he shot 6-for-17.
Tech again let a close game slip away, though this time the teams were on much more even footing, as the season has proven. There was little sense of a potential upset, simply two ACC teams going after each other. It was perhaps the source for Wright’s comments Saturday after the team’s win over Syracuse that he believed that Tech was the superior team to Duke.
“We’re coming in, Duke, senior night, going to get that ‘dub,’” he said. “We owe them big time.”
Three years his team was outclassed when he was a freshmen and he played only with the game out of reach, Wright is in the top five in the ACC in five different categories – scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage, steals, blocked shots and minutes. Alvarado is in the top six in six – scoring, field-goal percentage, assists, minutes, free-throw percentage and steals – and he leads in the last two categories. And, more notably, their team is 13-8 and in the thick of the chase for its first NCAA tournament bid since 2010.
From afar, Krzyzewski has noticed.
“He’s talented, motivated and incredibly savvy,” he said of Alvarado Monday on the ACC coaches videoconference. “It’s tough to be on his team and not be emotional. He’s always in search of making a play, offensively and defensively. He’s a terrific player and he’s an older player. He’s a veteran. He’s as good a competitor as there is in the league.”
The coach also doffed his cap to Wright, who Monday was named ACC player of the week for the second time this season.
“He’s arguably playing as well or better than anyone in our conference,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s been sensational. And you get him on senior night. Other than that, it’ll be a walk in the park.”
Barring a meeting in the ACC or NCAA tournaments – provided both teams advance to the latter – this will be Wright and Alvarado’s last chance at the Blue Devils. It would be far too much to say their legacy rides on this game, but in a season in which they have led the Jackets to so many landmark achievements – a school-record 11 consecutive ACC home wins and the team’s first back-to-back ACC winning seasons since 1988-90 chief among them – ending the Duke streak would be a satisfying addition to the list. (It would also be Tech’s fifth consecutive ACC win, which the Jackets haven’t accomplished since the 1995-96 season.)
“I just want to go out here, last home game, I want it to be a war, no letup, all fight until the end,” Wright said.
For a final game at McCamish, it would be an apt finish.