The embattled sophomore has had his ups and downs this season, but on Monday night the Houston native hit the decisive shot that gave Duke a 69-65 victory against Virginia.
“When it released my hand I knew it was going in," Sulaimon said. "When it hit the rim I was kind of in shock a little bit but the Lord was on my side.”
Faltering in the final stretch, the Blue Devils (13-4, 2-2 in the ACC) gave away an 11-point advantage. Virginia went on a 13-1 run to seize a 65-64 lead with 38 seconds left when Cavalier guard Malcolm Brogdon drew a foul on Tyler Thornton and calmly sunk two free throws.
But Sulaimon would not let the game go. With 19.2 seconds remaining, Amile Jefferson found a waiting Sulaimon in the corner right in front of the Duke bench. After a high bounce off the iron, Sulaimon's triple splashed through the net, thrusting the Blue Devils back ahead of Virginia (12-5, 3-1) for good.
“As soon as Amile got it, I made myself available and he was looking for me as well," Sulaimon said. "He trusted me and passed it to me, and I shot it with confidence and I just thank God that it went in.”
Sulaimon's heroics started long before his triple. The guard carried the load in the first half with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, and finished with a season-high 21 points in just 24 minutes. He wasn't just a one-way player, either—Sulaimon came away with two steals in the contest as well.
Sulaimon was not the only sophomore to pay big dividends for Duke. His classmate, Jefferson, was just as integral—if not more—to the Blue Devil win. Like Sulaimon, Jefferson carried the load offensively in the first half, knocking down all four of his shots from the field to give him eight points in the half. Down the stretch Jefferson came up with big play after big play to ensure that the home team emerged victorious.
“Amile was an animal," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "What a great game. In the last few seconds he just willed us to win."
With 24 seconds remaining, Jefferson corralled the offensive rebound off of a Rodney Hood miss that set up Sulaimon's game-winning 3-pointer. With 10 seconds left, Jefferson stole the ball from Virginia's Joe Harris. When the clock read just four seconds, Jefferson came up with his career-best 15th rebound and was immediately fouled. The 40.9-percent free-throw shooter strode to the line and buried both free throws to ice the win and give himself his first career double-double in the process.
"That was one of the great sequences that I’ve seen and the basketball gods are good to somebody who does that," Krzyzewski said.
Although the sophomores were nothing short of sensational, there were other contributors to the Duke win. Just two days after a shocking loss to Clemson on the road, and the memory of last season's 73-68 loss to Virginia in Charlottesville fresh in everyone's head, Krzyzewski made two key changes to his usual coaching strategy. The first change was the insertion of freshman Matt Jones into the starting lineup, replacing Sulaimon. The second was a hockey-style line change, in which all five players on the court were swapped out throughout both halves.
Jones didn't do much offensively for Duke, but he was the only Blue Devil to consistently get to the free-throw line, hitting four of his team-high six attempts. It was on defense that Jones really made his impact. Jones' main assignment defensively was the second-leading scorer for Virginia—Brogdon, who looked uncomfortable with Jones on him, made six shots on 13 attempts.
The full five-man swaps also seemed to pay dividends on defense. The entire Duke lineup played aggressive basketball against the likes of Harris and Akil Mitchell, who shot a combined 8-of-19 from the field.
In the two teams' meeting last season, the duo torched the Blue Devils for 55 points on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. The additional minutes that went to guys like Jones and center Marshall Plumlee—who played 12 minutes of tough interior defense, which included a block—helped the overall team defense and took the pressure off Hood and Jabari Parker.
However, the line switches may have had negative affects on some of Duke's shooters. Playing erratic minutes, Parker made just 3-of-11 shots. Quinn Cook finished the night 2-of-7 and Andre Dawkins was only 1-of-3. Hood overcame a slow start to finish the game shooting 5-of-12.
“It can," Jones said in regards to the lineups swaps affecting players' rhythm. "With guys like me probably not because I try to bring toughness and get in where I fit in. But with [Parker] and Hood, probably so.”
With a gritty win against a very difficult ACC opponent in the books, the Blue Devils are back on track and back to .500 in conference play.
“That was a huge win for us against an outstanding team," Krzyzewski said. "It was a battle. It was a great battle.”