CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – They screamed, grabbed each other, punched the air and then screamed some more. In a hollowed-out John Paul Jones Arena, hardly anyone could make sense of the sounds coming from the mouths of Duke players. Maybe the Blue Devils couldn’t, either, if they were being honest about it.
Maybe adrenalized gibberish offered as good an explanation as anything for what happened here: A team left for dead for three straight days and a good portion of Saturday night became the first to beat Virginia all season.
Across an unsettling 72 hours or so this week, many things had happened to Duke. It became a sixth-place ACC team. It watched one player become the first guy the coach ever outright kicked off his team in more than three decades. Then the Blue Devils steadily lost their minds against a brutishly deliberate foe, throwing their heads back in exasperation and grabbing legs out of aggravation. This is the effect the second-ranked Cavaliers generally can have on people. And the final was nevertheless Duke 69, Virginia 63.
A catharsis out of nowhere, really, for a team with fortunes that may or may not have been in doubt, but in need of a night like this to be convinced of it.
“Man, it’s like a weight off our shoulders,” Blue Devils forward Matt Jones said, after dribbling out the final seconds of regulation with an index finger held aloft. “No team in the country had been through the week we’d been through. It’s a great moment. We can breathe now a little bit.”
It’s worth noting that everyone will be just fine here. In fact, everyone probably was going to be fine no matter the result. Virginia (19-1) doesn’t have a spotless record, or its long home win streak (21 straight before Saturday), or a stranglehold on the ACC. It does have a convenient excuse to believe it now operates just off the national radar.
That’s completely false, of course. But the Cavaliers probably can convince themselves of that, and that they have much to correct in a hurry, especially on the defensive end. And a more workmanlike existence suits them perfectly anyway.
This was Virginia’s first of three straight games against teams ranked in the top 15 as of the weekend. They’ll approach the next two, against North Carolina and Louisville, with proper perspective and properly torqued.
“It is a slap in the face, especially in our own arena, to lose,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “But it happens. We can’t be too upset.”
Duke did win 17 of 20 games before Saturday, something a bit obscured in the maelstrom of the preceding days. The excommunication of mercurial guard Rasheed Sulaimon on Thursday was stunning, yes, but only because Mike Krzyzewski never took such drastic action on any of his players before. The feeling around Duke is that Sulaimon had more than his share of chances. If his teammates liked him, surely they also recognized that there is a limit to a coach’s patience.
The Blue Devils lost depth and production. They also may have lost a distraction, while gaining the always helpful cornered-animal approach.
On Thursday, there was no true practice, just a film session and a pep talk from the staff as players digested Sulaimon’s departure. This is who we have, the Blue Devils were told. On Friday, they had a workout aimed to keep them loose heading into the maw in Charlottesville. No sense in burdening the team with an exacting game plan. Playing free offered the best chance to be free of its concerns.
So Duke pushed ahead by pushing tempo, running even after makes before Virginia’s smothering defense could get set, compiling 10 fast-break points in the first 12 minutes against a team that had allowed 31 total, all year. They settled for nothing but the cleanest of looks, with 22 first-half points in the paint -- every one of Duke’s made shots was from point-blank range.
Freshman Justise Winslow had 11 first-half points, all on charges to the iron, none more emphatic than the two that followed a blocked shot on the other end.
“We wanted our guys to attack the basket,” Krzyzewski said. “Justise had amazing verve. He set the example of taking it hard.”
There comes a time, though, when Virginia methodically bends your mind and erodes your composure so much that the only answer may be turning off your capacity to think at all. Duke appeared to take this approach. It slouched to an 11-point second-half deficit and then rallied. It watched Winslow earn a flagrant foul for grabbing at Virginia forward Justin Anderson’s leg, as part of a sequence that created a nine-point hole. It watched Jahlil Okafor scratch through endless double-teams to post as many turnovers (five) as field goals. And then the Blue Devils rose again, hitting five three-pointers in the last five minutes after hitting just one before that.
It makes you wonder what Duke could have been thinking, but that presumes Duke concerned itself with thinking much at all Saturday.
“When it comes to these big-time games, we’re comfortable,” Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook said. “We could have laid down when they made their run. We answered.”
They had their confirmation that the new normal is enough like the old normal to stay encouraged. There were moments Duke looked like the team that beat Wisconsin and Louisville on the road, the precociously mature team without any discernible ceiling. To say that the Blue Devils unequivocally knew that club would reemerge, after the maelstrom of the past few days, is to engage in a bit of fairy tale telling.
“Human nature crept in a little,” Jones conceded in the locker room. “Obviously we were like, where do we go from here?”
From one hell of a week, as Krzyzewski put it, on to the next one. Only they’ll be convinced going in that it won’t get any worse.