Sulaimon, Jefferson help Duke hold back Cavs
Jan. 13, 2014 @ 11:01 PM

 For all the emotion and passion Duke showed Monday night as it tried to shake off a rocky start to ACC play, the ultimate goal remained unfulfilled in the game’s final 30 seconds.

The Blue Devils needed a basket and they achieved it with hard work.

They needed a defensive stop, which they accomplished with instinct and toughness.

Then and only then did No. 23 Duke finish off Virginia, posting a 69-65 ACC win over the Cavaliers at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“I thought we played with so much heart tonight,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was our best game as far as that goes. We played with that much heart.”

The Blue Devils (13-4, 2-2 in ACC) lost league games to Notre Dame and Clemson in the first week of ACC play. Defensive lapses and poor rebounding were major causes.

Against Virginia (12-5, 3-1), Duke brought emotion from beginning to end — fighting for rebounds, hustling for loose balls, working through screens to guard opposing players.

All that work earned Duke the lead for nearly the entire game, including a 63-52 margin with 3:44 to play. But Virginia rattled off 11 consecutive points to tie the game for the first time since the opening tip.

Two Malcolm Brogdon free throws at 36.4 gave Virginia its first and only lead at 65-64.

The Blue Devils worked the ball to Rodney Hood, their most consistent scorer in league play. Hood’s twisting shot in the lane bounced out.

But Amile Jefferson, author of so many hard-nosed plays in the game, secured an offensive rebound. He zipped a pass out to Rasheed Sulaimon, who launched a 3-pointer from the corner.

The ball bounced off the rim and high into the air before swishing through with 22 seconds left to give Duke a 67-65 lead.

“Whenever we get an offensive rebound, the kick-out for 3 has been something that we’ve done well,” said Sulaimon, who led Duke with 21 points. “As soon as Amile got it, I made myself available and he was looking for me as well — he trusted me — and he passed it to me and I shot it with confidence, and I thank God it went in.”

The Cavaliers called a timeout with 13 seconds left to set their final play. Jefferson foiled it.

Akil Mitchell attempted a cross court pass through the lane, but Jefferson used his long arms to steal the ball with 10 seconds left. He lost the ball, with Virginia’s Joe Harris securing the steal and firing up a shot. When the shot missed, Jefferson grabbed his 15th rebound of the game with four seconds left.

Harris fouled Jefferson, who salted away the game with two free throws.

“Amile was an animal,” Krzyzewski said. “What a great game. The last few seconds just willed us to win. That was one of the great sequences I’ve ever seen. The basketball gods are good to somebody that does that. He hit his two free throws.”

After Duke lost the rebounding battle 48-30 in its 72-59 loss at Clemson on Saturday, Jefferson took it upon himself to change his team’s fortunes.

“Just fighting, following the ball,” Jefferson said. “When shots (are) going up, not taking plays off and just being hungry. We have to play as a team, and we have to fight every day. Teams are not going to roll over for us, and if we don’t play with that same level of intensity and that same level of energy, it’s going to be a long night. For us, it just has to be a fight for 40 minutes.”

Krzyzewski took full blame for his team not having that fight as it lost two of its first three ACC games. On Dec. 26, Krzyzewski’s only brother, William, died in Chicago.

Krzyzewski attended the funeral less than 24 hours before the Blue Devils played, and lost, their ACC opener at Notre Dame.

Try as he might to prevent his fragile emotional state from impacting the team, Krzyzewski admitted Monday night he wasn’t as effective as usual.

“We haven’t been at our best since the start of conference and I haven’t been at my best since Christmas,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s my responsibility. I’ve been knocked back and today we weren’t knocked back. We just have to keep moving forward. Sometimes things occur that are human and we were there tonight and we were collectively together for the first time in a couple of weeks.”

Virginia had played impressively on Saturday, beating N.C. State 76-45 at PNC Arena in Raleigh. But Duke limited the Cavaliers to 38.2 percent shooting, including 30.4 percent in the first half when the Blue Devils built a 36-28 halftime lead.

Krzyzewski used an unusual substitution pattern where he often replaced five players at a time. The idea was to keep his undersized team fresh, and the plan worked.

“Everybody was fresh,” Duke senior guard Tyler Thornton said. “Giving guys a quick break here and there. They were able to come back and pick up where they left off instead of leaving them out there on the floor. People get tired. If you play a lot of long minutes game after game it will get into your legs.”

Krzyzewski said he should have noticed that was happening.

“I’ve had to get more observant with my team,” Krzyzewski said. “I take full responsibility for those first three games. Everything is on me. Part of that is not seeing some things. At times we got tired because we’re not as big as some teams, so getting more guys in would help.”

It appeared to, as all the Blue Devils pulled together to get a hard-fought win Monday night.