CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—With 5:19 left in arguably their most important game of the season, the Blue Devils looked dead in the water.
As head coach Mike Krzyzewski put it, “The mental thought was ‘What lifeboat are you in?’” Duke trailed the No. 2 team in the country 56-47 on the road and the roof seemed ready to pop off John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers had already scored 31 points in the second half and dissected the Blue Devils’ man-to-man and 2-3 zone defenses led by All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon—who scored 23 points to lead his team past Duke in last year’s ACC championship—had already scored 13 points and Virginia had scored four points on one possession after Justise Winslow picked up the Blue Devils’ first flagrant foul of the season. After coughing up a late lead at No. 8 Notre Dame Wednesday and scoring just two field goals the last 10:58, Duke’s ACC goals were surely about to be on life support. The Blue Devils had to make up a nine-point deficit in 5:19 against a team that had held three opponents to less than 30 points in 40-minute games.
“They’re so big and strong, and they’re deep—I thought at the start of the second half they kind of wore us out,” Krzyzewski said. “They just took over…. Brogdon is not a good player—Brogdon is a great player. They’re all good, but he’s exceptional.”
Brogdon and his teammates had certainly been exceptional again Saturday in their bid to start the season 20-0, but Saturday Duke did a complete 180 with its late-game execution and did something that was more than exceptional.
The Blue Devils scored 22 points on their final eight possessions—going 5-of-6 from 3-point range after starting the game 1-of-11—and finally found a way to slow down Brogdon. The 6-foot-5 guard had been a pest in Duke’s 2-3 zone by utilizing the open space in its heart at the free throw line and cutting toward the short corner, so the Blue Devils did what they did so well at then-No. 6 Louisville two weeks ago: they adapted.
Duke’s zone turned into a 3-2 rather than a 2-3, with the guards pinching in to essentially pop the bubble in the middle of the zone that Brogdon had been exploiting, and Virginia was unable to score in the last 2:59. Its lead and momentum suddenly vanished, not only in the game, but in the ACC. The Cavaliers had a chance to go two games ahead in the loss column before the Blue Devils switched up their scheme.
Virginia was soon on the wrong end of a game-clinching 14-2 run and fell 69-63 to leave No. 1 Kentucky as the only unbeaten team in college basketball. Thanks to its late hot streak, Duke became the first team in the Cavaliers’ last 45 ACC games to shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
“[At first], Brogdon was cutting and we weren’t active. Coach K was [saying] ‘You’ve got to be active, aggressive and guard,' to myself and Tyus [so we could] help the back line,” senior guard Quinn Cook said. “[Later] the back line was talking to us and we did a good job.”
With Duke finally getting the stops it did in the first half when Virginia started the game just 1-of-7 from the field, the Blue Devils were finally able to do what they wanted to offensively—run. Cook came alive, knocking down all three of his triples in the last five minutes—including the go-ahead shot with 1:19 left—and Matt and Tyus Jones each added a clutch triple of their own.
Although it’s easy to attribute the trio’s late-game shooting to the law of averages or competitive spirit, a closer look shows that it was the product of another other distinct late-game changes for Duke. Krzyzewski and his staff decided to go to a four-guard lineup exclusively down the stretch despite playing with just eight scholarship players, four of whom are traditional guards. Even 6-foot-5 Matt Jones saw time at power forward as the Blue Devils searched for answers against the Cavaliers.
With dominant center Jahlil Okafor being used as a physical presence to draw attention and attack the offensive glass rather than as a primary scorer, Duke was finally able to solve the riddle that is Virginia’s stingy pack-line defense. Okafor was facing likely the most physical double teams of his young career, did not attempt a field goal for 17 minutes of first-half action and for a decent portion of the second half had the same number of traveling violations as he did points.
But by game’s end, the Chicago native’s six offensive rebounds and efficiency with a quartet of guards around him got the Blue Devils back to looking like a national title contender and were the topics of interest.
“When you have four guards in, when [the opponent goes] and double [teams], a three might be [more] open—that’s why we went to that lineup,” Krzyzewski said. “When we got the threes in the second half, they weren’t as much in front of us because it was transition or we moved around so we had a better window.”
Duke still faces a myriad of questions after the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon and a tough ACC slate ahead, but for the third time this season on the road against a top-six opponent, it found a way to get the job done.
“A lot of credit to Virginia—we haven’t played a [defense] of that caliber,” Cook said. “We had to work for everything we got tonight—that’s what makes it a little bit more special.”
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