Duke Drops Late Triples to Beat Virginia

The party started early. It poured out onto shabby front porches, marched across the grounds, squeezed into bar benches and Corner porch tables and quick lunches at all the old favorite spots. Students and alumni. Orange and navy. A whole town carrying itself with the breezy, buzzy assurance of a Saturday in college, when all is right in the world and the party never ends.

Why not? Their No. 2-ranked Cavaliers were 19-0, playing the best, most consistent two-way basketball in the country, well on their way to a second straight regular-season ACC title. A win over No. 4 Duke, the consensus preseason pick — not to mention the dominant league power for decades — would confirm the new UVa reign.

Reigns begin with coronations. Coronations come with parties.

And then Tyus Jones showed up. And then the party was over.

With 11 seconds left, a sudden 3-point lead, and an entire building in his ear, Duke’s star freshman guard buried a stutter-step 3 — a shot that simultaneously capped a remarkable Blue Devils comeback, sealed their 69-63 win, plunged John Paul Jones Arena into numbed muffles and sent Hoos fans heading for the exits.

“[The feeling’s] kind of indescribable,” Jones said.

Jones wasn’t the only one searching for words. Such was the lightning-strike nature of the Blue Devils’ comeback: An 11-possession, 28-point explosion in the final eight minutes that turned the entire game — and perhaps the state of the ACC race — on its head.

For most of the night, the Cavaliers looked set to do to Duke what they’ve done to every opponent they’ve faced this season, that trademark mix of whip-smart offense and punishing pack-line defense and just enough big plays down the stretch.

The start was slow. The Cavaliers’ 26-25 halftime deficit was the result of an uncharacteristic 20 minutes full of missed shots, bad shots, early shots, or some combination thereof. The Blue Devils attacked on every long miss, beating Virginia’s defense down the court, wisely saving itself the trouble of grinding out long possessions against the nation’s grinding-est defense.

That strategy served to mask Duke’s troubling trends. Not only were the Blue Devils not shooting it well from the perimeter — a must for Duke’s offense generally, and an absolute requirement against the pack-line — but freshman center Jahlil Okafor, always the team’s most reliable offensive threat, was having perhaps his first true off-night of the season.

Okafor finished the first half with more travel violations (three) than field goal attempts (two). The Blue Devils were 0-of-4 from beyond the arc. If this kept up, it was only a matter of time before Virginia rolled.

Which is exactly how the second half started. Virginia’s offense stopped settling. Instead, the Cavaliers, led by point guard Malcolm Brogdon, got back to the sound principles that made them the nation’s No. 5-ranked adjusted efficiency offense in its first 19 games. Justin Anderson, London Perrantes and most of all Brogdon worked screens and angles in expert fashion. By the 13:38 mark, a string of layups and easy looks had extended the Cavaliers’ lead to 41-30. Even when Duke switched into its zone — which Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski later equated to a desperate scramble for a strategic “lifeboat” — UVa forward Isaiah Wilkins and Mike Tobey easily found its weakness.

Those makes made it almost impossible for Duke to push the pace quick enough. In the half-court, the Cavaliers’ strategy against Okafor — doubling out of the weakside post and rotating to the best shooters on the floor — turned the Duke star into little more than a rebounder. Duke stretched its streak of missed 3s to 0-of-9. Easy points fed defensive stops. The virtuous circle was renewed. The coronation proceeded apace.

And then a weird thing happened. The stops, well, stopped.

“We got to the rim, we got some rhythm shots at the mid-post, we moved the ball, we got our lob,” Bennett said. “There was enough offense there to win that game. We didn’t come up with — what you have to do is come up with tough stops. Those errors on our part cost us.”

With less than 10 minutes to play, Duke finally stopped the bleeding. Reserve guard Matt Jones hit the Blue Devils’ first 3 of the night, and hardly its last. Buckets by Justise Winslow and Quinn Cook preceded back-to-back finishes by Okafor (and a third, a Jones layup, that Okafor’s spin move created). Suddenly, the lead was down to four. Even Winslow’s flagrant foul, which turned into a four-point UVa swing, couldn’t halt the momentum.

“They were up by 11, we got back, and then they had that,” Krzyzewski said. “That was kind of like two big things that our guys had to get over. But they did. And that says a lot for them.”

Duke did much more than that. After barely holding on for 35 minutes, the Blue Devils began making everything in sight — a 3 and then a string of layups and then a dunk and then one 3 after another, all falling, Virginia’s lead shrinking, Virginia’s fans growing tenser with every possession.

The run that brought Duke all the way back in front was furious: In their final 11 possessions, stretched over eight minutes, the Blue Devils scored 28 points. In the final five minutes, they shot 5-of-6 from beyond the arc — part of a 22-9 stretch, including a 14-5 run in the final 4:03.

“We saw a few go through the basket,” Tyus Jones said. “Any time you see a shot go through, it gives you a little more confidence. Early we were a little hesitant. But Coach told us, ‘keep shooting.’ And that’s what we did.”

Confidence is one thing. Being up 3, late in the shot clock, with 11 seconds to play, and one-on-one on the wing — well, that’s something else entirely. Jones’ game-clincher was the decision of a player who at once seems impressed and nonplussed by the noise of the big moment. The shots weren’t falling, and then they were. Saturday was supposed to be Virginia’s day, a 20th straight businesslike win. For most of the day, it was. And then, just like that, it wasn’t.

The result? Two days after guard Rasheed Sulaimon became the first player of Krzyzewski’s 35-year Duke career to be dismissed, the freshman-dominated Blue Devils, with all their defensive flaws, now own wins at Wisconsin, at Louisville and — most impressive of all — at previously unbeaten Virginia.

It takes something special to shut down a good party.

“There’s no feeling like it,” Okafor said. “But it’s something we’re getting accustomed to.”

Written by Catfish Hughes

Catfish Hughes

Frank “Catfish” Hughes has been called, “Bob Knight’s Baby with Hip Hop that covers sports.” and “the future of sports writing!” He is an official member of the NSSA & USBWA. Catfish covers the Los Angeles Angeles as the official East Coast Voice of the Lakers, and owns the NBA media outlet, WickedJumpShot.com and was the host of Thru the Wire Sports Talk Radio which aired on both ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio. Catfish is the head editor and chief here at the Boxing Globe. @CatfishHughes on twitter.