CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It took No. 4 Duke all of five minutes to ruin the best party night of the year.
Not only was Gameday in town, turning the always-entertaining Charlottesville into a day-long haven for tailgating, but Saturday was Bid Night for the fraternities at the University of Virginia. And with five minutes left and Virginia holding a commanding, 56-47 lead, it was as close as lock as you can get that the campus would also be celebrating a win over the Blue Devils, the kind of wind that signals the shifting winds of a power change in the ACC hierarchy.
Virginia doesn’t blow late leads. Three times this season they’ve held a team below 30 points for an entire game. There was no way that they were going to give up a late flurry of three-pointers that would propel the Blue Devils to a 69-63 win over the No. 2 Cavaliers, handing Tony Bennett’s club their first loss on the season.
“We were down nine and [Coach] told us we were going to win this game,” point guard Tyus Jones said, “and not one person on the team ever doubted it throughout the whole game, no matter what the situation, what the time was. We still believed that we were going to win.”
They may have been the only ones.
Duke did not score a point outside of the paint until Jones hit a three with 9:39 left on the clock that cut Virginia’s lead to 45-37. With a little more than five minutes left on the clock, after Duke had been able to chip away and get the lead down to just two points, Virginia seemed to throwing their knockout punch. With the score 52-47, Justise Winslow and Justin Anderson got tangled up going for a loose ball and Winslow was given a flagrant foul for grabbing Anderson’s leg. Anderson would hit both free throws and Anthony Gill would score on the ensuing possession, pushing the lead to nine.
“I thought there was enough offense there to win that game,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
That’s when Duke got rolling.
Jones was the driving force during the comeback, the three he hit with 9:39 left opening the floodgates. Duke would score on five consecutive possessions after that, and after Winslow’s flagrant, the Blue Devils scored on their final eight possessions. Do the math, and that’s a 35-18 run over the course of just under ten minutes and 15 total possessions. Duke scored on 14 of those 15 possessions — the only possession they didn’t score on was the one where Winslow picked up the flagrant — and used runs of 22-7 in the final five minutes and 14-2 in the final 3:22 to win it.
After starting the game 0-for-9 from three, the Blue Devils hit six of their last eight three-balls, including four in a row in the final 3:22.
“Quinn, Matt [Jones] and Tyus had some huge threes after we had not hit threes,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I told them that that’s the best win we’re going to get.”
Jones was the driving force in the comeback, finishing with 17 points and four assists. Quinn Cook added 15 points while Winslow went for 15 points and 11 boards.
“At the end, you have to come up with some tough stops,” Bennett. “Those errors and breakdowns cost us.”
Bennett has a point. Virginia did make some uncharacteristic mistakes down the stretch. They were late on some defensive rotations, they allowed Duke to come up with some offensive rebounds and second-chance points, they got stagnant against the 2-3 and 3-2 zones that Duke threw at them. But credit where credit’s due: Duke hit the shots that they needed to hit, and in the process completely changed the feel of their season.
A loss on Saturday would have been dreadful. Duke would have been 4-4 in the ACC, 3-4 in their last seven games and one thrilling comeback at St. John’s — a team that is 3-5 in the Big East — away from being in utter disarray. It felt like their season was on the precipice of imploding.
15 possessions and 35 points later, the opposite is true. The Blue Devils now own wins at Virginia, at Wisconsin and — as Cook made sure to point out to me after the game — at Louisville. If it wasn’t for three missed free throws from Jahlil Okafor, a missed free throw from Rasheed Sulaimon and one fortunate bounce for Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant, Duke would be able to add a win at Notre Dame to that list as well.
“Adversity hits, you gotta stay together,” Cook said. “We didn’t get frustrated. We didn’t get too down.”
“To give those guys their first loss this year says a lot because of the week we’ve been through.”
Duke has plenty of flaws this season, flaws that have been exposed over the course of the last month. Their perimeter defense, particularly their starting back court of Cook and Jones, can struggle on the defensive end. Okafor struggles as a rim protector and struggles more defending the pick and roll. It’s bad enough that the Blue Devils, for the first time in Krzyzewski’s illustrious career, are relying heavily on playing zone. They’re down to just eight scholarship players, and while Okafor may be the single-most talented player in the country, he’s really the only low-post presence that they have. Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson are solid role players; they aren’t striking fear in the hearts of opposing coaches.
But the Blue Devils aren’t going to shy away from the moment.
And they aren’t going to go away once you get them down.
“We all watch TV,” Cook said. “We all listen to the commentators. And nobody gave us a chance in any of those games.”
“I think we like that.”