By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – On the game’s first possession, one of Duke’s four fabulous freshmen, RJ Barrett, hit a 3-pointer from the left wing.
It was a sign of things to come in an ACC men’s basketball game that played out in improbable fashion.
Third-ranked UVA entered the contest leading the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (24.7). Second-ranked Duke was ranked 13th among ACC teams in 3-point field goal percentage (30.8).
So what happened Saturday night at John Paul Jones Arena, with ESPN’s College GameDay crew on site?
The Blue Devils made 13 of 21 shots from beyond the arc – 61.9 percent – and never trailed in an 81-71 victory before a sellout crowd that included LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The 81 points are the most UVA (20-2 overall, 8-2 ACC) has given up this season, as are the 13 treys. Virginia, which prides itself on its transition defense, also allowed 17 fast-break points and turned the ball over 14 times. The Wahoos came in averaging nine turnovers per game, the fewest of any team in Division I.
“I told our guys after [the game], for us to beat a team like Duke, the way they’re playing, we are going to have to play a cleaner game in a few areas.,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
When these teams met at Cameron Indoor Stadium last month, the Blue Devils prevailed 72-70, but they were only 2 for 14 from 3-point range. They made 8 for 11 shots from beyond the arc in the first half alone Saturday.
“It’s the best we’ve shot from the 3-point line,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “and obviously that’s a huge difference.”
So, too, was his team’s ability to score in transition.
“Look, it’s a lot better to get points against [the Cavaliers] when their defense isn’t set up,” Krzyzewski said. “That helped us tremendously.”
In Durham last month, the ‘Hoos made only 3 of 17 shots from 3-point range. They were significantly better in that area Saturday night – 10 for 24 – but couldn’t keep pace with Duke (21-2, 9-1).
The Devils weren’t as effective inside the arc as they’d been at Cameron, where Barrett scored a game-high 30 points, but that didn’t matter, given their 3-point prowess. UVA placed extra emphasis on plugging gaps in its trademark Pack Line defense, and that gave Duke a little more room on the perimeter.
“We did a much better job in the gap, and they didn’t get as many driving lanes,” Virginia guard Kyle Guy said, “but when you hit 13 threes, you’re going to be hard to beat.”
Bennett said: “I thought that we were a little slow to our closeouts. We really tried to keep [Duke] out of the lane and jam the lane. We probably over-corrected in terms of that.”
Not since Nov. 22, 2010, when Washington hit 58 percent of its field-goal attempts in a one-sided win, had a UVA opponent shot as well as Duke (57.8 percent) did Saturday night.
“Props to them, they made a lot of shots,” said Virginia’s Jay Huff, a 7-1 redshirt sophomore who came off the bench to score eight points. “We tried our best to contest a little bit, but they made a crazy amount of shots.”
Freshmen accounted for all but seven of Duke’s points. Barrett, a 6-8 swingman, led all scorers with 26 points, 6-7 forward Zion Williams had 18, 6-8 swingman Cam Reddish had 17, and 6-2 guard Tre Jones had 13. Jones, who missed the first UVA-Duke game with an injury, also had six rebounds, a game-high seven assists and two steals.
“Tre Jones makes them a different team,” Bennett said. “He brings a level of toughness and ball-handling, sureness, touch in the paint, and then defensively, he’ll get after you. We had some chances to be in there but, not enough. My hat goes off to a team that played very well today.”
Junior guards Ty Jerome and Guy led Virginia with 16 points apiece. Jerome, who hurt his back Jan. 29 against NC State, missed the Cavaliers’ win over Miami last Saturday, and his status for the Duke game was uncertain heading into the week.
“I didn’t know for sure until about Thursday that I was going to play,” said Jerome, who had team highs in assists (four) and steals (three) Saturday night.
Jerome’s return boosted the Cavaliers, but they lost redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite with 4:39 left in the first half.
On a dribble handoff, Diakite knocked heads with teammate De’Andre Hunter in front of the Duke bench. The 6-9 Diakite, who had seven points, three rebounds, one assist and one steal, fell to the court and stayed down while play was stopped.
After being examined by head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba, Diakite got to his feet and walked back to the Cavaliers’ bench, but he never re-entered the game.
“It was a big loss,” Hunter said. “He was playing really well.”
Bennett said: “Hopefully Mamadi will be all right. He took a pretty good blow.”
Duke scored the game’s first eight points and made its first five 3-pointers. But the Cavaliers, who trailed by 14 late in the first half, battled back and went into the break down only four.
At that point, momentum belonged to the ‘Hoos, but they couldn’t sustain it. Reddish buried three 3-pointers in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the second half, and suddenly Virginia found itself trailing by double figures again.
The ‘Hoos never quit. A Hunter trey made it a five-point game with 5:24 left, but they drew no closer the rest of the way.
“We’ve made crazy comebacks before,” Huff said, “and we just kept saying, ‘We’re not done.’ It just didn’t happen tonight, but we kept fighting.”
Krzyzewski said: “Whenever [Virginia] kind of had a run, one of our guys answered … Not one guy, but they kind of took turns doing it. Like a counterpunch.”
Williamson, a freakish athlete who weighs 285 pounds, had a game-high three blocks. Most memorable was the one, on a Hunter 3-point attempt, that Williamson swatted deep into the stands.
“There’s two people in the world maybe that can make those plays, and they were both in our gym tonight,” Bennett said with a rueful smile, referring to Williamson and James.
NEW STANDARD: During the first timeout Saturday night, UVA head football coach Bronco Mendenhall and his team took the court, to loud applause from the crowd.
In 2018, Mendenhall’s third season with the Cavaliers, they finished 8-5 after defeating South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl. Not since 2005 had UVA ended a season with a victory.
Virginia returns a talented core of players from its 2018 team, including outside linebacker Charles Snowden, who proudly held the Belk Bowl trophy over his head during the timeout.
THEY SAID IT: The loss ended Virginia’s 13-game winning streak at JPJ. Among the postgame comments:
* Guy on the Blue Devils’ fast start: “I think that we’re a team that doesn’t get fazed very easily. Obviously, when they hit five in a row and seven out of eight, it’s hard, because it was an uphill battle all game.”
* Guy, who finished with a team-high five turnovers, on his slow start: “It was one of my poorer performances in the first 15 minutes of the first half. A lot of uncharacteristic things and unacceptable things for a [team leader] who’s been there, done that. I think I just needed to settle down.”
* Krzyzewski: “We feel very thankful that we won. I’m proud of my guys, but we beat a heck of a team, and they’re a great program.”
* Krzyzewski on James’ presence at JPJ: “He texted me today that he might be here. He and I are really good friends. He helped me look good in Beijing and in London” – where the United States won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012, respectively – “so he’s welcome to come around any time. But it was cool that he was here.”
QUICK TURNAROUND: The UVA-Duke game ended around 8 p.m. Saturday. The Cavaliers will bus Sunday afternoon to Chapel Hill, N.C., where another top-10 battle awaits them.
At 7 p.m. Monday, third-ranked Virginia (20-2, 8-2) faces eighth-ranked North Carolina (19-4, 9-1) at the Dean E. Smith Center. ESPN will televise the game.
UNC rallied to defeat Miami 88-85 in overtime Saturday afternoon at the Dean Dome.
The Cavaliers have won three straight over the Tar Heels. In their most recent meeting, UVA defeated Carolina 71-63 in last year’s ACC title game in Brooklyn, N.Y.