With two of the nation’s top defenses lined up Saturday, a slugfest wasn’t out of the question and that’s exactly what a capacity crowd witnessed in Charlottesville.
Virginia and Duke took turns suppressing offense throughout the night as the Hoos packed things in and turned away shots at the rim, while the Blue Devils pressed and challenged every move. In the end, the Cavaliers had one more stop in the tank and that lifted them to a 52-50 win at John Paul Jones Arena. UVA has won six straight games and nine of the last 10.
“I’ve coached a lot of games. This is a really good basketball game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “This was not a good basketball game, this was a really good basketball game where every kid out there competed. It came down to a play one way or the other. As you go forward you would think that you will be in similar games and you hope that you would make one play more and advance.”
Fittingly for a hard fought defensive battle, the outcome came down to a final play at the rim.
The Cavaliers held a narrow one-point lead when Braxton Key missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw with 14.7 seconds to go, putting the pressure on the Virginia defense to make a stand. The Hoos proved up to the challenge.
The Blue Devils pushed the ball up the floor quickly with Tre Jones and he turned into a drag ball screen from Vernon Carey above the top of the key. Jay Huff and Kihei Clark kept Jones away from the paint, but he still found Carey rolling out of his pick with a diagonal pass on the money just feet away from the basket. Carey gathered the ball and pivoted toward the rim, but Mamadi Diakite came flying in from the left wing to potentially bother a shot attempt. Carey decided to use a fake to try to stay way from the shot-blocking ability of Diakite, but by the time he went up with the ball, Huff had recovered all the way from his hedge position to block the shot anyway.
It was a play that really encapsulated the story of the night. Virginia’s defense simply smothered the visitors’ offense and Huff made sure that few opportunities came easy near the rim.
UVA held Duke to just 50 points, the lowest for the Blue Devils in the series since they came up with 47 on Jan. 31, 1981. The 50 points scored are tied for the fewest in a game for the program in the last 10 seasons (50 vs. Miami on Feb. 25, 2017). Duke finished at 30.5% shooting, its worst outing in more than four years (29.9% against Utah on Dec. 29, 2015).
The Blue Devils got 17 points each from Carey and Jones on a combined 12-of-25 shooting, but they got little production elsewhere. Javin DeLaurier had 6 points, while Cassius Stanley added 4 points on 1-9 shooting. Jordan Goldwire, Wendell Moore, and Joey Baker ended up with 2 points each while Matthew Hurt and Jack White didn’t score. The rest of Duke’s roster combined to make just 6 of 34 attempts (17.6%).
“[Carey is] such an excellent player and well-schooled and he’s hard to handle,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I’ll watch the tape but I thought we did a really good job. There were a few times maybe we weren’t perfect, but overall, I thought we defended the way we had to in the interior. A couple of times I had visions of [Tre Jones’] brother rising up and making those threes. Kihei didn’t inch up enough to bother him on a couple of those threes that he hit. I remember his brother did that to us, just daggers, back a few years ago. I really had that thought when I saw it: ‘What is going on with this family?’ They’re winners and they’re special. But overall, we guarded the way we needed to and made enough plays.”
A lot of Duke’s struggles came courtesy of Huff, who tallied 10 blocked shots on the night. That put in some rare company. He tied for second most in UVA’s single-game history with the most blocks since Ralph Sampson also blocked 10 vs. Old Dominion on Dec. 29, 1979. Sampson holds the single game record at Virginia with 12.
Huff became just the second player ever to have 10 blocks in a game against Duke, joining Clemson’s Tree Rollins who did it on Feb. 3, 1977. The 10 blocks are the most by an ACC player since NC State’s Beejay Anya had 10 on Nov. 20, 2014 and Huff is just the third player to have 10 blocks in a head-to-head ACC game in the last 20 seasons (Boston College’s Tyrelle Blair and Duke’s Shelden Williams).
“It feels great. Ralph [Sampson] apparently had 12 so it’s not that cool,” Huff said jokingly. “No, but it was fun, really exciting, some of it was timing, some of it was just being at the right place. But yeah, it was really cool.”
Huff also came through on offense where the Hoos needed every point they could get in order to get the close win. Huff made 7 of 9 shots on the strength of several thunderous dunks. He finished just one rebound shy of a triple-double with 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 10 blocked shots.
As a team, Virginia shot 42.0% overall (21-50) and 30% from 3-point range (3-10). The hosts committed 15 turnovers. UVA got a big outing from Key. He shook off 6 turnovers to put up a solid line otherwise. He posted 14 points on 6-11 shooting and added 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocked shots. Clark battled through Duke’s strategy to deny him the ball and a scoreless first half to record 7 points, 5 assists, and 3 steals.
Diakite, meanwhile, also had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting, which included a pair of 3-pointers. He had 5 rebounds, 1 blocked shot, and 1 steal as well. Diakite delivered the go-ahead bucket with a drive into a spin from the right wing. Moore fell down trying to draw a charge on the play and Diakite calmly scored off the glass with no call on the play.
“I knew that the team needed that bucket and it was a critical moment so I just did what I had to do,” Diakite said. “Credit to them because they were able to find me.”
The win continued a trend for Virginia, who has played close game after close game this season. Saturday’s two-point margin marked the fifth time in the last six games that the outcome came down to the final possession. In 2020, 13 of UVA’s 15 ACC games have been decided by seven points or less.
In other words, living on the edge is something the Hoos are used to and that may be part of the reason they’re able to pull out so many tight decisions.
“That’s the hard-fought type of game that they play all the time,” Krzyzewski said. “That experience of playing in that level of game helps them. I think that is why they have won so many of these games recently, one possession games because they are accustomed to how important every possession is.”
“We’ve been in those spots a lot,” Bennett said. “You have to make plays defensively as much as offensively. They were both made. … Certainly, a credit to making plays and in being in those spots a lot. I think it does help. Very fortunate and thankful.”