Playing without floor general Tre Jones, Duke needed the rest of its star-studded freshman class to show up against a veteran and elite Cavalier squad.
Combining for 66 of the Blue Devils’ 72 points Saturday, one could say they did just that.
Top-ranked Duke knocked off No. 4 Virginia 72-70 Saturday evening at Cameron Indoor Stadium behind 30-point and 27-point performances from the nation’s top two freshmen Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, avenging a last-minute loss in the 2018 edition of the rivalry and rebounding from a 95-91 overtime loss to unranked Syracuse Monday.
"That’s a big time game, they don’t get too much better than that. The kids on both teams—every possession was good," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "If you scored, you beat good defense. If you didn’t score, good defense beat you. Every possession was high-level.
"It’s been a tumultuous week for us, starting with Zion getting hurt at Florida State and not playing. We’ve played 125 minutes in the last three games and 18 of them we’ve had our starters. So, to almost beat Syracuse and to win these two games, it’s a heck of a thing for our kids."
After going back and forth the entire second half, Barrett hit a layup to extend the Duke lead to three at 63-60 with 2:30 remaining. On the next possession the Mississauga, Ontario, native continued to attack, drawing contact and converting off the glass to give the Blue Devils a five-point edge, then-their largest of the half. Marques Bolden drained consecutive clutch free throws to give Duke a 67-60 advantage a minute remaining.
Kyle Guy hit from downtown with less than 30 seconds left to cut the lead to three, and the visiting team fouled Barrett to get the ball back. However, the young Blue Devil hit his third and fourth consecutive free throws to ice the game.
"Down the stretch our kids hit big shots. Marques’ two free throws were huge," Krzyzewski said. "The only bad mistake we made defensively was we know their play when we had a six-point lead. The whole bench is yelling at them and Guy hit a three, at which he’s terrific. It put R.J. and Cam in position to get some pressure free throws. Instead of having a two-possession lead, they go to the line with a one-possession lead and they hit them."
With freshman point guard Jones out, the team struggled to generate ball movement, focusing on matchup advantages and relying on iso-ball. Duke (15-2, 4-1 in the ACC) generated just two assists in the opening period and a mere six on the game, but Barrett and Williamson used size mismatches to push through Virginia’s vaunted pack line defense.
Playing without Jones, who was left out of the starting lineup after suffering a shoulder injury in Monday’s overtime defeat to Syracuse, the Blue Devils went big, opting to start center Bolden and 6-foot-8 forward Jack White in favor of Jones and the struggling Javin DeLaurier.
"[Jones] wasn’t going to play. We made that decision yesterday, he just doesn’t have enough movement yet," Krzyzewski said. "I can’t tell you when. I’m not going to say he could to be ready for Pittsburgh. Every day we’re going to see how he progresses and then make that decision based on the day-to-day stuff."
Although Duke did not get off to a strong start from the field, shooting just 43.8 percent in the first half and making a mere 2-of-10 attempts beyond the arc, the Blue Devils’ hustle and physical advantage was evident from the onset.
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Despite the Cavaliers (16-1, 4-1) draining 57.7 percent of their first-half attempts, Duke was able to take a 37-32 advantage into the locker room. The Blue Devils used their size to dominate the glass, where they had a nine offensive boards in the opening 20 minutes to just two from Virginia. That presence would continue in the second period as Duke ended the game with a 32-27 edge on the boards.
The Blue Devils also used their physicality on the interior to draw contact and get to the line. Duke’s early season free-throw woes were not evident on the big stage in the first half as the team made 7-of-9 percent of its attempts at the stripe, but inconsistency plagued the Blue Devils in the second half as 13 points were left on the line.
"Coach K gives us the freedom to be us, so [R.J.] gets the ball moving and when there’s movement for the three of us there’s no telling what we’re going to do," Williamson said about the physicality in the paint. "It’s just ball movement. Even when we didn’t have the ball, we were moving a lot. When we’re moving it keeps the defense moving, but when we’re standing still it gives defense the help."
Duke struggled out of the locker room after the break, going just 1-of-4 from both the field and the charity stripe as a five-point advantage quickly evaporated. A triple from Ty Jerome cut the Blue Devil lead back down to one with less than 16 minutes remaining in the contest. The Cavaliers would retake the lead for the first time since they led 7-5 at the 16:15 mark in the first half minutes later on a pair of free throws.
The teams would remain neck and neck to the final minutes. Duke converted 63.2 percent of its second-half attempts and would not back down against a dismal effort 3-of-17 effort from deep from the Cavaliers.
Despite winning Saturday's showdown, Virginia will have a chance for revenge Feb. 9 in Charlottesville, Va. The Blue Devils have come away victorious in both of their last two games on the Cavaliers' home floor.
"They’re terrific and hopefully we bring the best out of each other," Krzyzewski said. "We’ll have a hell of a game when we play them up there."