Duke came in to Monday night's game against Virginia needing a win. The Blue Devils had lost two of their first three ACC games. In both losses Duke struggled to keep the opponent out of the paint and, at times, displayed some questionable effort. On Monday, Duke set out to prove they are still Duke. And they did.
Amile Jefferson grabbed on offensive rebound and found an open Rasheed Sulaimon on the wing for a three pointer with 18.8 seconds remaining to put Duke up 67-65.
Jefferson wasn't finished. On Virginia's ensuing possession he stole a cross court pass, lost the ball, rebounded Joe Harris' miss on the inside, and knocked down two free throws to give Duke the final margin of 69-65.
For much of the game Duke seemed in control. The Blue Devils came out with a noticeable improvement in energy and effort from the opening tip and never really let up. But Virginia, who under coach Tony Bennett have developed a reputation for playing tough and grinding out games, never went away and finally took the lead with 36 seconds remaining before Jefferson and Sulaimon's heroics.
Jabari Parker opened the game with a three pointer, his only make of the half, and Duke forced 3 Cavalier turnovers in the first 3:30 to take an 8-0 lead into the first media timeout. Virginia responded with a run of their own and at the 10:32 mark of the first half Duke only led 12-10. Duke then reeled off seven straight points heading into the under 8 minute timeout.
Duke played well defensively throughout the first half, defending the rim well and limiting dribble penetration. Virginia only shot 30% from the field in the opening half, but capitalized on their 15 free throw attempts, hitting 12. Duke took a 36-28 lead into the break behind 20 combined points on 9-11 shooting for Sulaimon and Jefferson.
The second half featured much of the same. Duke went 5 minutes without a field goal and Virginia was able to cut the deficit to 3 before Duke went on another small scoring run. Quinn Cook went scoreless for the first 35 minutes of the game before reeling off seven in a row to give put the Blue Devils up 63-52 with just under 4 minutes remaining. Virginia scored eleven points over the next 2 minutes to tie the game at 63. After a made Sulaimon free throw, Malcolm Brogdon hit two of his own to give the Cavaliers their first lead of the night with just over 30 seconds to play. Jefferson, who had 15 rebounds in the game, wouldn't let Duke lose. Grabbing the Rodney Hood miss out of the air before finding Sulaimon for what proved to be the game winner.
This win meant a lot for the Blue Devils. A loss would have effectively erased their chances of winning the ACC. But to play with the effort they showed for 40 minutes and battle through the test from a good Virginia team could mean a lot for this young team who has been struggling to find some consistency.
Matt Jones got his first career start for the Blue Devils. He started in place of Rasheed Sulaimon. "Sheed" gave an inspiring performance off the bench, scoring a season high 21 points. Sulaimon seemed to score at will, hitting 4-5 three pointers. Jefferson had 10 points to go along with his gutsy performance down low. Rodney Hood overcame a slow start to finish with 14 points.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski employed a new strategy for this game, opting for full line substitutions of 5 players every few minutes. The players seemed to respond well, playing physical basketball and showing great effort, knowing they would get a break within a few minutes. Coach K noted after a game that players had looked tired over the last couple weeks and he plans on using their depth to their advantage.
Coach also took the blame for the Blue Devils lackluster play to start the ACC season, saying that he hadn't been himself since Christmas, most likely referring to the unexpected loss of his brother Bill on December 26. K said that the last two weeks were on him, but the future was on everyone as a team.
Duke improved to 21-1 over their last 22 games following a loss. They will face North Carolina State on Saturday in Cameron Indoor Stadium.