By Jeff White (email@example.com)
DURHAM, N.C. — A magnificent comeback put the UVa men’s basketball team in position to win Monday night, stunning the home fans at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and the audience watching on ESPN. As they have so many times under Mike Krzyzewski, however, the Blue Devils found a way to win a close game in their storied arena.
“It’s their home court,” redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said in the subdued visitors’ locker room after Virginia’s 69-65 loss. “I feel like that’s what happens in Cameron. Shots are going to fall for them that won’t fall for us.”
The Cavaliers (12-5, 3-1), who lost for the 16th straight time at Cameron, were left to ponder what might have been. With 3:30 to play, they trailed 63-52. With 36 seconds to play, they led 65-64 after Brogdon calmly sank two free throws.
Virginia’s shocking run, against a Duke team that came in having won 25 consecutive home games, included a 3-pointer and a three-point play by sophomore swingman Justin Anderson, a steal and a layup by senior guard Joe Harris, and a three-point play and the two free throws by Brogdon.
“We could have easily just kind of folded it in,” Harris said, “but there was a lot of fight in us, and never for a moment did we ever think we weren’t in the game.”
Brogdon said: “We had `em on the ropes.”
Alas for UVa, the Devils (13-4, 2-2) escaped, to the joy and relief of everyone associated with their program. Think this was just another game for Duke? Think again. The Blue Devils were coming off a 13-point road loss to Clemson and had dropped to No. 23 in The Associated Press poll, and their celebration afterward showed how much the victory meant to them.
“It was a great battle,” Krzyzewski said. “Virginia is terrific. They’re as well-coached as any team in the country … It was a heck of a win for our basketball team.”
Much of the credit goes to 6-8 Amile Jefferson, a 6-8 forward often overshadowed by his high-scoring teammates Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.
“He made solid plays all night,” Harris said of Jefferson.
Virginia, leading 65-64, hounded Hood into an airball, only to see Jefferson come down with his fifth offensive rebound. Jefferson quickly passed the ball to classmate Rasheed Sulaimon, a 6-4 guard whose shot from the deep left corner hit the far rim. It bounced high into the air and dropped through with 19 seconds left, making it 67-65 and giving Sulaimon a season-high 21 points.
UVa head coach Tony Bennett knows all about Sulaimon’s shooting touch. Bennett was an assistant coach on the USA Basketball team that in July won the gold medal at FIBA’s under-19 world championships in the Czech Republic, and his players included Sulaimon.
When he saw Sulaimon after the game, Bennett told reporters with a weak smile, “I said, `Why do you gotta do that to us?’ Because that thing was up on the rim, bounced and just hung there. They’re soft rims at Duke, and that paid off for them this time.”
After a timeout, UVa inbounded the ball with 13.5 seconds to play, looking to set up Harris for a 3-pointer from the left corner. But senior big man Akil Mitchell tried to force a pass to Harris, and Jefferson, under the basket, got his hands on it. On the first possession of the second half, Virginia had run a similar play, and Harris had buried a 3-pointer off a pass from freshman point guard London Perrantes.
“It’s the action we wanted,” Bennett said. “We just didn’t execute the pass to get a look at it.”
Harris eventually got the ball back from Jefferson, but his contested layup attempt was off the mark, and Harris fouled Jefferson in the scramble for the rebound.
Jefferson, who came into the game shooting 40.9 percent from the line, made both free throws with 6.8 seconds left to close out the scoring. He finished with 10 points, 15 rebounds, two assists, two steals and one blocked shot.
“Amile was an animal,” Krzyzewski said. “The last few seconds [Jefferson] just willed us to win. That was one of the greatest sequences that I’ve seen. The basketball gods are good to somebody that does that.”
Jefferson came in averaging 6.3 points and 6.3 rebounds. “He doesn’t get a lot of credit through the stats or anything like that, but he makes a lot of winning plays, and he showed that tonight,” Harris said. “He was on the glass, he made a clutch play at the end and then he knocked down the two free throws.”
Brogdon led the Cavaliers with 17 points, and Harris and Anderson added 15 and 12, respectively. The 6-8 Mitchell grabbed a team-high nine rebounds and blanketed the heralded Parker. A 6-8, 235-pound freshman from Chicago, Parker scored only eight points on 3-for-11 shooting.
“I really pride myself on my defense,” Mitchell said. “I really feel like I can guard anybody on the floor. He is a tough matchup. He’s got a quick release, and a couple of stepbacks and things that’ll get you kind of off-balance, but I just pretended like I was guarding Joe or guarding someone else and did my best to stick with him.”
For all the positive plays he made Monday night, Mitchell hurt the `Hoos from the line, hitting only 1 of 5 free throws. Late in the game, Bennett often replaced Mitchell with 6-11 sophomore Mike Tobey when Virginia had the ball.
For the season, Mitchell is 28 for 64 (43.8 percent) from the line. As a junior, when he was named to the All-ACC third team, he made 69.3 percent of his free throws.
“It’s all mental,” Mitchell said.
UVa was coming off a 31-point win over NC State. That game was played Saturday night in Raleigh, and the Cavaliers stayed on Tobacco Road through the weekend. They practiced Sunday afternoon at Duke’s Krzyzewski Center and held their shootaround Monday morning at Cameron, where a special guest — former UVa athletics director and basketball coach Terry Holland — greeted them.
Virginia never trailed in its first three ACC games, wins over Florida State, Wake Forest and NC State. Duke scored first Monday night and held the lead until the final minute.
The Blue Devils went up 30-17 on five straight points from Sulaimon, and a blowout seemed possible. But the `Hoos cut their deficit to eight by the break and continued to battle in the second half.
“I think the energy in the building, the fans, had us a little riled up, sped us up a little bit,” Brogdon said. “I think it basically took us a half to settle down and execute and run our plays. We were still in the game, even though we were sped up in the first half. We still were in the game, and we came back and made a run.”
Bennett said: “I thought we reeled it in defensively and we became harder to score against, and that’s what I liked, and that’s what you have to do. We made some stands defensively, and it gave us a chance.”
A win would have not made the Cavaliers’ season, Bennett told his players afterward, and the loss won’t break it. His players missed a lot of shots they typically would make — Virginia shot only 38.2 percent from the floor — but he couldn’t fault their effort or competitive spirit.
“That thing could have gotten away,” Bennett said, “and they scrapped and fought their way back, and hopefully we’ll have another chance at [Duke].”
Anderson said: “You can always say coulda, shoulda, woulda, but I couldn’t be more proud of how hard this group fought tonight.”
Harris, a few feet away in the locker room, echoed Anderson.
“It’s great to see that in our team, that we have that fight,” Harris said. “Coming in, we talked about how we hadn’t trailed at all in ACC play and what we were going to do when we faced adversity, and I think we answered that.”
Mitchell said: “We kept playing our game. We didn’t switch anything up. We kept doing what we do: getting stops. It took a while, but eventually we were able to wear `em down and grab the lead back. If anything, that should just give us confidence.”
UPCOMING: Virginia, which played three of its first four ACC games on the road, is home for its next three.
At John Paul Jones Arena, UVa hosts Florida State (11-4, 2-1) on Saturday at noon, North Carolina (10-6, 0-3) on Monday at 7 p.m. and Virginia Tech (8-7, 1-2) on Jan. 25 at 3 p.m.
For ticket information, visit www.VirginiaSports.com/tickets or call 800-542-8821.