In Duke’s last game against Virginia, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad shot 2-of-14 on three-pointers and relied on its talent to beat the Cavaliers’ stifling defense. Instead of repeating that performance Saturday, the Blue Devils took a page out of UMBC’s “make every shot” playbook, shooting 57.8% and 13-for-21 on threes in an 81-71 win.
RJ Barrett set the tone from his first touch. The freshman guard entered the day shooting just 31% from behind the arc, but splashed one on the opening possession and proceeded to make his next four, surpassing his career high for made three-pointers with over eight minutes left in the first half. He finished with 26 points on 8-of-15 shooting, 6-of-10 from deep.
Zion Williamson did a slew of Zion Williamson things: he threw down a gravity-defying dunk in transition, blocked three shots to go with three steals and scored 18 points. As Ralph Sampson put it during a first-half courtside interview: “He’s a big boy.” Sampson was one of a number of notable faces in the crowd, which included LeBron James, Rajon Rondo and Grant Hill
It appeared the hosts were ticketed to get blown off their home floor when they went down by 14 with just over five minutes to go in the first half, but they responded with a scoring burst of their own. Kyle Guy scored eight points in the final three minutes to pull Virginia within four at halftime.
The Cavaliers also executed well offensively throughout the second half, creating easy buckets for Jack Salt inside with Guy, Ty Jerome, Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter all contributing crucial second-half jumpers. But every time the hosts brought things close and the decibel levels inside John Paul Jones Arena rose, there was Tre Jones with a three-pointer in the corner, or Barrett with one over tight defense, or Marques Bolden sealing Huff for a layup.
This dynamic was epitomized in the game-sealing sequence. Huff hit a three to bring the Cavaliers within seven with 2:28 remaining, and Barrett missed a step-back triple on the ensuing possession. But Williamson soared for an offensive rebound and then took a perfect dump-off pass on a Cam Reddish drive, rising for an emphatic slam that put Duke up 75-66 with 1:42 on the clock.
In a familiar story, almost all of Duke’s scoring came from its superstar freshman class. In addition to Barrett’s 26 points and Williamson’s 18, Reddish had 17 and Jones added 13. Their 74 points equaled the amount Jairus Lyles and the Retrievers scored against Virginia last year in the NCAA tournament when the class of 2019 was in high school.
1. Duke’s ceiling is the highest in the country. The Blue Devils may not do it possession-for-possession like the Cavaliers (see: the first half against Boston College from Tuesday), but no one can touch them at their best. Whether it was blowing out Kentucky on opening night or scoring 81 points on a team that hadn’t given up that many since Jan. 4, 2017, the Blue Devils have shown the ability to turn in performances that other teams can only dream of. Virginia has now learned first-hand the duality of Duke. They can win shooting 2-of-14 from deep, or 13-of-21.
2. Virginia’s vulnerabilities haven’t changed. It should be noted that Tony Bennett’s squad executed a smart defensive game plan. They were carved up by Barrett and Williamson driving to the hoop in January, so they endeavored to turn Duke into a jump-shooting team. This theoretically should have worked. Duke entered the game ranked 306th in the nation in three-point percentage at 30.8%. Had they shot anywhere near that percentage, Virginia likely would have won. But such are the risks of daring teams to take threes: sometimes, your opponent makes them.
3. The ACC title race should be thrilling. Duke and North Carolina are now tied atop the ACC at 9-1 and play twice in the final month, including on the last night of the regular season. Should either of them slip, Virginia sits in third at 8-2. The Cavaliers will have an opportunity to jump the Tar Heels when they travel to Chapel Hill on Monday. It’s hard to ask for more than two historic programs battling for a conference title behind some of the most fun players in the country in Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Coby White.