Time after time in 2021, the Blue Devils have let the game's closing moments slip through their fingers, always on the wrong side of a chance to flip the season's momentum.
But facing one of the ACC’s best—a team with championship experience—Duke finally put its youth in the rearview mirror to put a dagger in No. 7 Virginia and grab a resume-boosting win Saturday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Blue Devils took every punch from the visiting team down the stretch and hit back for the first time this season. Facing endless must-score or must-stop situations, an array of Duke’s underclassmen simply made plays en route to a 66-65 victory.
"We've learned through losing and losing close games," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "But at least we learned from it—not just losing, but why and what we needed to improve on.”
Close games have not been kind to the Blue Devils this season, and the team’s current status on the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble might look more optimistic if the scale just tipped the other way on a few of those contests.
Duke should be doing anything other than looking in the past right now, but it’s hard not to look at how unkind crunch time has been to this team. The Blue Devils couldn’t find a timely stop against Pittsburgh or Notre Dame. Wendell Moore Jr. produced a costly turnover with a chance to tie against North Carolina. Jalen Johnson passed out of a potential game-winning 3-point attempt in a loss to Miami. And who can forget when the rims closed against Louisville with Duke needing a single triple to fall.
Krzyzewski mentioned the “basketball gods” after that loss to the Cardinals, but the closing moments of Saturday night’s game didn’t seem like any sort of universal justice.
It felt more like a team playing with nothing but heart.
“We’ve had eight straight days of prep and games where we’ve gone all out, knowing that the season hasn’t gone how we wanted it,” forward Jaemyn Brakefield said. “But we’re just finishing out, just going all out and trying to be Duke.”
With 2:44 remaining and Virginia holding a one-point advantage, senior Jordan Goldwire set up in a full-court press and slapped the floor. His four teammates followed with the signature Duke move and proceeded to hold the Cavaliers scoreless for the rest of the game.
“The last three games, we’ve really played well on the defensive end of the court and it’s made a difference in us winning and losing,” Krzyzewski said.
Despite gaudy distribution numbers from Moore—seven assists to one turnover—Krzyzewski looked to the rookie backcourt of Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward alongside Goldwire for the home stretch.
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Without a real offseason and few nonconference tune-ups, the maturation process for the two young guards has undoubtedly been difficult in a season filled with inconsistent play. However, Roach quietly assisted the Duke offense with several huge buckets, the most important coming on a jumper to tie the game at 60 with 4:17 left.
Steward struggled to shoot the ball all night, finishing 2-of-7 from the field and 1-of-5 from 3-point range. But the Whitney Young product’s growth eventually shined, putting the misses behind him for two of Duke’s biggest field goals in the final minutes. Steward knocked down a triple to extinguish the remainder of Virginia’s largest second-half lead with 5:49 remaining and brought the team to within one on a contested fall-away jump shot from the baseline with 2:41 to go.
“[Roach and Steward] have been really good freshmen...good players, but for freshmen they’ve been really good,” Krzyzewski said. “They are out there and learning from their experiences. Jeremy had one of his best games tonight and DJ, he hit a huge shot. They’re good players and they will keep getting better as they mature physically and emotionally.”
But the star of the show had to be Brakefield, who sat in the shadows for much of ACC play but is now finding an increased role. Whether it was a recovery block on Kihei Clark or what would prove to be the game-winning lay-up over Jay Huff, the freshman saw the moment and attacked it.
“Do I feel like a freshman? I’m 20 years old, and I’ve been playing high-level basketball for a while now,” Brakefield said. “But as the season progressed, my game progressed. Just being out there, I felt more comfortable.”
As time expired, the Blue Devils sprinted off of Coach K Court full of raw emotion and smiles. With the season on the line, Duke played fearless, adding another scar for a team in desperate need of hard-fought wins.
“It felt so good,” Hurt said. “The season hasn’t gone how we wanted it. There’s been a lot of negativity. But we’re just going to try to take everything not for granted and just try to keep getting better every day.”