CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.—For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s third law provided the guidance for No. 7 Duke’s latest win.
After a tight 40 minutes where leads were never safe, the Blue Devils defeated Virginia, 65-61 at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., Wednesday night. With lockdown inside defense and timely scoring runs to respond to Virginia’s threats, Duke emerged victorious. In classic Virginia fashion, no matter how many points Duke’s teams are capable of scoring, games at the Cavaliers' home rarely result in an offensive shootout—and Wednesday night’s game was no exception. Both defenses showed up to play as the teams battled for momentum and neither could ever build a long-lasting lead as Duke looked for revenge for the Feb. 7 matchup in Durham which Duke saw Virginia's Reece Beekman hit a game-winning three in the closing seconds.
"Just like the last game could have been ours, this game could have been theirs," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We actually prepared extremely well for this game—more like a veteran team—and I thought our defense was excellent."
After a quiet night from the floor where he couldn’t buy a shot, Duke sharpshooter AJ Griffin caught fire with under four minutes to go, splashing home two threes to bring a one-point lead to four, and soon after a two-point lead to five.
"I'm really proud of AJ because he had such a tough shooting night. But we have confidence in him that his next shot's gonna go in, and three of his next shots went in," Krzyzewski said of his freshman wing.
A steal on the defensive end and a coast-to-coast layup from Trevor Keels put Duke up by five with under a minute to go, and that was enough to finish off the game.
A Kihei Clark layup on the next possession was just too little, too late as a missed three from Jayden Gardner took the clock down under three seconds. Griffin took to the free-throw stripe and connected to finally put the dagger in.
For the duration of the second half, no lead was big enough. To every Duke run, Virginia responded. For every Jeremy Roach bucket down the stretch, the Cavaliers returned the favor with one of their own. Duke’s stars couldn’t get going as Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin were virtual non-factors on the floor.
Possession after possession, the once-eight-point lead felt more and more insignificant.
But one thing remained constant. Duke (24-4, 14-3 in the ACC) held the lead. And down the stretch, Krzyzewski’s squad maintained that oh-so precious lead.
Roach’s timely shot-making helped balance out the Blue Devils’ otherwise sluggish performance shooting the ball. The sophomore guard hit two go-ahead shots in the first half and a 3-pointer early in the second to grow Duke’s lead against all the gravitational resistance induced by Virginia’s stalwart defense. Roach led the team in scoring for the first time this season with a breakout 15-point performance on 3-for-3 shooting from deep.
"I'm telling you that [Roach] was the guy tonight. That was the difference maker," Krzyzewski added.
Though momentum was not in its possession in earnest, Duke kept pushing the ball downhill and earned several tough baskets through contact—something it failed to do in the first frame. A catalyst of this newfound aggression inside was freshman guard Trevor Keels, who found his spots in the mid-range and used his frame to muscle inside. The Maryland native finished the night after scoring 12 points.
Earlier, three Kihei Clark threes and several poor forced shots by the Blue Devils as the first-half clock wound down gave all the momentum back to Virginia (17-11, 11-7) as it caught fire to snap out of a six-minute-plus scoreless drought. Just as the Blue Devils looked to be finished with playing catch-up, it was back to square one with the Cavaliers defense locking up Duke’s star players. Clark, the 5-foot-10 senior, quickly looked to take over, as his 3-point shooting was uncontained by Duke. He shot a scorching 6-for-9 from deep in the first half, but fortunately for Duke, he was the only Cavaliers player giving the visitors trouble with 18 of his team’s first 22 points.
"Just locking in on him, staying on top, just following the game plan," Roach said about his approach to stopping Clark in the second half.
Clark went on to add only seven points without a made 3-pointer after the break.
The Williams-led interior defense stood tall and was unrelenting in closing out and blocking its opponents’ shots—a key to keeping the game in check when Clark’s Virginia team looked almost invincible. Virginia shot 3-for-13 inside the perimeter during the first frame, and only managed its first layup of the night minutes into the second half.
A strong finish to the half with shots from Keels and Paolo Banchero quietly had the Blue Devils up by five at the break. Duke’s first half close set up Virginia to continue the theme of trading runs to begin the second.
Banchero began as the orchestrator of the offense, but some carelessness with the ball against doubles in the post made it hard to find the open players and tough closeouts from Virginia’s perimeter defense further limited the open looks Duke got as the game progressed. The freshman forward ultimately scored his first points on his third shot with 12:19 on the clock and turned the ball over three times throughout the game. The 2-for-6, four-point first half continued a weeks-long quiet first-half trend for Banchero.
"I liked how Paolo tried to be more physical today. And it'll translate into something really good," Krzyzewski said. "You got to be in these situations, you can't practice this."
As the first half progressed, it was clear that strong ball movement was key. Duke continuously looked to take advantage of late defensive switches to find the open man as isolation ball—especially through Banchero—was all but out of the picture just minutes into the first half.
Duke heads to New York next to take on Syracuse.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.