DURHAM, N.C. -- Surely you didn’t expect Duke to lose at home to Virginia.
No matter how odd it is seeing Duke in the bottom fifth of the polls and in the bottom half of the ACC standings, let’s not get carried away with its demise.
“Losing here is not a good feeling, it’s like a gloomy cloud over Durham every time we lose,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “Everybody was against us. I don’t think that nobody believed that we could win today because those guys are a great team.”
The Blue Devils have always been capable of pulling out a 69-65 win at home like they did against the Cavs on Monday. We shouldn’t get too carried away with proclaiming the Blue Devils back, either.
The Cavaliers, despite entering the day tied for first place in the ACC standings with Syracuse and Pittsburgh, lost for the 16th straight time in Cameron Indoor Stadium dating back to Jan. 14, 1995.
“We lost two games and we haven’t been playing well as a ballclub,” Duke forward Jabari Parker said. “To get to play one of the top three teams in the ACC and beat them just brings us back to where we want to be.”
The fact that the Cavs are even a measuring stick should be a red flag. This is the same Virginia team that lost by 35 at Tennessee.
If Duke’s two league losses at Notre Dame and at Clemson didn’t prove it to be a flawed team, then surely Virginia’s rally from down 13 did. The Cavs trailed the entire game until taking a one-point lead with 38 seconds left.
It was short-lived, as Amile Jefferson tied his career high by rebounding a Rodney Hood miss. His job being to rebound and redirect, Jefferson kicked the ball back out and the sequence ended with Rasheed Sulaimon scoring the go-ahead basket when he got a friendly bounce on a 3-pointer.
Jefferson set his career high with his 15th rebound after a Joe Harris miss that could have tied the game with four seconds left.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Jefferson “an animal” for scrapping to get seemingly every rebound.
“The last few seconds [he] just willed us to win,” Krzyzewski said. “That was one of the great sequences that I’ve seen.”
And that is one of the sequences he expects to see much more of from Duke moving forward.
Krzyzewski revealed he hadn’t gotten over his brother’s passing on Dec. 26 and all but promised the Blue Devils would be a different team from now on.
“We haven’t been at our best since the start of conference and I haven’t been at my best since Christmas,” he said. “That’s my responsibility. I’ve been knocked back and today we weren’t knocked back.”
Krzyzewski said he needed to be more observant of his team. He said part of the reason why the Blue Devils were getting dominated by opposing frontcourts was fatigue. That changed against Virginia.
He substituted entire lineups throughout the game to keep players fresh. Cook joked, “It felt like my Little League team.”
But the Blue Devils knew the stakes were big.
That’s why Krzyzewski extolled the crowd to make noise when coming out of a first-half timeout. It’s why Tyler Thornton grabbed Sulaimon and hugged him during a lineup change, happy for his fast start. It’s why Andre Dawkins nearly choked Jefferson in a headlock on the bench after his game-saving rebounds in the final seconds.
“It was a pretty emotional game -- for some personal reasons, but also for this team,” said Sulaimon, who scored a season-high 21 points. “It was a must-win. We had to protect Cameron.”
Duke played with a sense of urgency that it lacked in its road losses. Thornton said no one had to make a stirring speech or discuss how important the game was. They all knew their record and the league standings.
“We at the bottom of the league, 1-2, that was the facts,” Thornton said. “We had no other option but to come out here and get a win.”
Jefferson, he of constantly undersized battles in the post, emerged from the game with his jersey ripped down the right side. He said the game was symbolic of the team’s renewed sense of urgency.
“Tonight was us starting to fight as Duke and as one unit and we need everybody, tonight was a team win,” Jefferson said. “You can’t look at the scoreboard and say one person carried us, it was everyone. Everyone came in the minutes they played, fought and played hard and I think that’s something we have to do going forward.”