CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. All season, with or without Ryan Kelly, Duke has remained composed and steadily worked toward a strong regular-season finish.
Suddenly, after a 73-66 loss at Virginia on Thursday during which Duke was out-worked and left flustered, all of that is in doubt.
With the loss, No. 3 Duke (24-4, 11-4 in the ACC) has a one-game lead on North Carolina and the Cavaliers for second place. And the Blue Devils still have to host first-place Miami—who have clinched at least a share of the regular-season title—and pay the Tar Heels a visit.
Duke was consistently outworked and outhustled, and that was most evident in Virginia’s edge on the boards. Duke finished with just one offensive rebound—total. The Cavaliers (20-8, 10-5) pulled down 23 defensive rebounds.
Two plays in the second half reflected the results of the entire 40 minutes. In the opening minutes, Joe Harris missed a 3-pointer but followed his shot, collected the rebound and finished in the lane to give Virginia a 32-26 lead.
Perhaps most problematic for Duke, though, was a true freshman moment from Rasheed Sulaimon, who has largely avoided those all year. Sulaimon was called for a foul on Harris, who had blown past him on a drive. As Harris was on the free throw line though, a visibly upset Sulaimon was called for a technical foul. Quinn Cook tried to calm Sulaimon down as he left the floor.
Harris responded by making all four free throws, giving Virginia a 38-26 lead. The junior finished with a career-high 36 points on 12-of-20 shooting. Harris, who leads the Cavaliers with an average of 16.6 points per game, had 15 points in the first half alone. All of Duke’s perimeter defenders— Cook, Tyler Thornton, Sulaimon and Seth Curry—took turns trying to guard the 6-foot-6 Harris. None of the options were particularly successful.
Thornton, Duke’s best on-ball defender, fouled out with 8 minutes, 15 seconds left in the game. Curry tried to bring the Blue Devils back with 23 second-half points, and Virginia’s lead was single digits with 5:30 remaining in the game, but Harris was there to answer every Duke threat.
Virginia was the superior team in every aspect of the game. Defensively, Duke had few open looks all night, as Virginia’s defenders did a masterful job hedging on screens, and double teams in the post limited Mason Plumlee to 10 points on 2-of-5 shooting.
Duke shot under 40 percent for only the second time all season—the other time was against Miami.
Offensively, the Cavaliers had their way in the paint. Virginia cutters constantly found space in the lane, as the Blue Devils defense looked as porous as it did in earlier losses to Miami and Maryland.
Despite little going right for Duke in the first half, the Blue Devils trailed only 28-23 at the half.
The third-place Cavaliers (19-8, 9-5 in the ACC) opened the game with a 9-0 run, and Duke didn’t hit its first field goal until Sulaimon used his dribble to get free for a jump shot with 15:20 on the clock. Mason Plumlee was held to four first half points on just three attempts from the field.
Virginia shot 48 percent from the field in the first half, but the Cavaliers missed several wide-open looks as the half came to a close. That trend continued in the second, as the Cavaliers couldn’t pull away.
Two 3s from Cook helped the Blue Devils in their early comeback attempt. A 3-pointer from Curry with 4:27 left made it a one-possession game for the first – and only – time at 22-21. Duke was just 3-of-10 from deep in the first half and shot 34.8 percent overall from the field.
The Blue Devils won’t have long to dwell on their defeat—they host Miami on Saturday.