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Given the week that was, Duke’s win over Virginia was extra special for Coach K and his young Blue Devils

Photos from Duke’s win over Virginia

Check out photos from Duke's big ACC win over Virginia in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2019.
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Check out photos from Duke's big ACC win over Virginia in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2019.

Though he entered Saturday with 1,114 college basketball wins to his name, Mike Krzyzewski was especially locked in once his Duke Blue Devils took the court against Virginia.

The Cavaliers were unbeaten. Duke was playing without injured point guard Tre Jones, the player Krzyzewski called his team’s most important.

The 71-year-old coach had something cooked up to deal with it all.

Krzyzewski didn’t spend much time lobbying the officials when their decisions went against Duke. That’s a rarity. And it’s safe to say it wasn’t because he felt their judgment was unassailable.

Instead he had levers to pull and buttons to push to get his talented, yet undermanned team, past a Virginia team that had yet to lose.

A different defensive philosophy was one. A sprinkle of zone was another. And a wrinkle in the offense was the coup de grace that helped Duke finish off a 72-70 win at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“That was a big-time game,” Krzyzewski said. “You don’t get too much better than that.”

Duke-North Carolina games at Cameron have their own unique feel.

Duke-Virginia can’t match that but, boy did it come close.

Simply put, there appeared an extra level of anticipation to his one.

Always the hunted thanks to five national titles and four decades of piling up wins, Duke actually had doubters.

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The separated shoulder Jones suffered in last Monday night’s 95-91 loss to Syracuse put a dent in what had been a sparkling, joy filled season for Duke up to that point.

Freshman phenom talks about teamwork and how the Blue Devils came out on top of the unbeaten Cavaliers

Jones spearheaded Duke’s man-to-man defense, creating havoc out front as he hounded opponents into turnovers. His adeptness on offense to get the ball in the hands of Duke’s best playmakers, while not turning the ball over himself, made him a guy Krzyzewski trusted to play all 40 minutes if need be.

Now the Blue Devils faced the prospect of playing most of the rest of the regular season without him.

After a scheduled day off on Tuesday, the team reconvened on Wednesday for practice, film sessions and conditioning. Virginia, yet to suffer a loss this season, was coming to town in four days and the Blue Devils had no choice but to find a way to beat the Cavaliers.

It helped that they learned Jones’ shoulder injury wouldn’t sideline him for weeks or months. His shoulder is sore and his range of motion remains so limited he couldn’t play against Virginia.

This is more of a game-to-game injury than a long-term problem.

That changed the team’s mindset.

“It wasn’t super difficult, especially once we found out his injury wasn’t going to be as long-term as we may have feared,” Duke junior forward Javin DeLaurier, a team captain, said. “We were like, ‘Ok. We have Virginia coming in Saturday. We can’t lose.’”

Duke battles unbeaten Virginia and comes out on top 72-70

Krzyzewski and his staff decided Duke would continue to mostly play man-to-man defense but, at all five positions, the Blue Devils would switch which man they covered when the Cavaliers set disruptive screens.

“We haven’t done that,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s something the last couple of days we did. We felt that we could not defend the baseline, floppy curls. They are so good.”

The transition without Jones defensively wasn’t easy. But the Blue Devils eventually got it.

“We really had to talk and communicate,” DeLaurier said. “Interestingly enough we struggled this week with it. But guys came prepared. We came in the locker room ready to win, ready to fight.”

Though Virginia shot 52.8 percent overall and only turned the ball over eight times, the Cavaliers hit only 3 of 17 3-pointers. Virginia shot just 48.1 percent after halftime and hit just one field goal over a stretch covering more than nine minutes.

That allowed Duke to build a 67-60 lead Virginia couldn’t overcome. During part of that nine-minute stretch, Duke employed a zone defense to throw the Cavaliers off their game.

After DeAndre Hunter scored with 4:25 to play cutting Duke’s lead to 61-60, the Blue Devils stopped Virginia on its next three possessions. Each time the Cavaliers got one shot per trip and missed it.

RJ Barrett scored two baskets before Marques Bolden sank two free throws with 1:09 left that allowed Duke to carry a seven-point lead into the final minute of play.

Barrett scored 30 points and Zion Williamson 27 as they accounted for 57 of Duke’s 72 points. They took 35 of Duke’s 51 shots.

Duke Blue Devils freshman RJ Barrett scored 30 points in a 72-70 ACC basketball win over previously undefeated Virginia on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, at Cameron Indoor Stadium

They got them with strong, aggressive drives to the basket. It all came against a Virginia defense designed to prevent just that.

That’s where the wrinkle on offense paid off for Krzyzewski. He had his players run a motion offense with a weave where they shared the ball out front in half-court sets. That little bit of movement shook things loose against Virginia.

“We haven’t weaved like we did just to move them a little bit,” Krzyzewski said, “and then we go into something. Just little things, and I think they helped us tonight.”

Little things lead to big things and the Blue Devils, as always, has big things on their minds.

The Blue Devils (15-2, 4-1 in ACC) are part of a six-team logjam atop the ACC standings.

Beating Virginia without Jones sends a solid message that this Duke team will have a say in who wins the national championship come March and April.

Krzyzewski knows that, which is why as he walked off the court after the game, he pumped his right fist ever so briefly but also emphatically before slapping hands with another school administrator.

His team -- yes, a talented team with future NBA players -- absorbed a serious blow to its ego, played through adversity and beat another of the nation’s best teams.

Win No. 1,115 in his career has a special feeling because of that.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.