Luke DeCock

Duke rebounds from loss to hand Virginia its first, reaffirming its status as ACC, national title contender

Zion Williamson talks about big win over Virginia

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

In the space of five days, everything that seemed to slip away again became possible for Duke. That wasn’t just the wait for the next game after a disheartening overtime loss to Syracuse. It was time used wisely. Adjustments were made. Commitments were affirmed.

With Saturday’s 72-70 win over previously undefeated Virginia, the Blue Devils reopened their case for the No. 1 seed in Charlotte and maybe even the No. 1 ranking on Monday. ACC supremacy is an open question, and Duke has as many answers as anyone, anywhere.

Even in mid-January this was a pivotal moment in Duke’s season, not only because of the jostling for position atop the ACC standings between these opponents but because of the reaction required in response to not only Monday’s loss but Tre Jones’ absence. Such losses are not taken lightly for a team expected to compete for a national title, one overloaded with likely first-round draft picks with one of those in particular on his way to distinguishing himself, statistically and anecdotally, as a player possibly unique in the entire history of college basketball.

Zion Williamson thought he knew the expectations Duke faced this season from the moment he committed to joining R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish in this triumvirate of lottery picks. But it takes a little while to understand what that really means. As Mike Krzyzewski told them, it takes a loss or two. And in the Wake of the Syracuse loss, it provoked a reaffirmation between Williamson and Barrett of what they’re here to do.

“Coach K, when we lost to Gonzaga, he said ‘Welcome to my world,’” Williamson said. “The world of being on top. When you win everything’s good. But when you lose, ‘They’re not this, they’re not that. They’re just freshmen like everybody else.’ (The Syracuse loss) kind of changed the whole mood at practice. Me and R.J., we’re roommates, we were talking about it the whole week, not even just this game, but in the future. Go out there and handle our business.”

All of which made this week a test of Duke’s ambitions both technically and emotionally. The latter was easy; the presence of ESPN’s College GameDay crew and a frenzied Cameron crowd that flaked blue paint into the air like volcanic ash had the Blue Devils amped to a level somewhere between double espresso and pseudoephedrine.

The former was a little more complicated, but an example of how Mike Krzyzewski still has the ability to win a game in practice, even against an opponent as formidable as Tony Bennett.

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

The adjustments Duke made to play without Jones were subtle and decisive. Duke switched everything on defense, unusually, to try to defend Virginia shooters Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. On offense, with Barrett bringing the ball up in Jones’ absence, the Blue Devils went to an old-school perimeter weave to move Virginia’s defense around and open lanes to the basket.

Both are out of character for what Duke typically does but it’s hard to imagine either working any better. The Blue Devils picked apart the pack line, with Barrett and Williamson getting to the rim seemingly at will. Duke, again, didn’t shoot very well from outside. With the aggression the Blue Devils showed with the basketball and on the offensive glass, it didn’t matter.

It did matter for Virginia, which doesn’t have the weapons Duke does – no one does – and the Cavaliers aren’t going to beat many good teams going 3-for-17 from outside. And Jones’ on-the-ball pressure wasn’t needed against Virginia, which was happy to walk the ball up the court at its leisure.

And still, for all of that, it was a one-possession game at the end, with 12 lead changes in a six-minute span of the second half, one that easily could have ended with a couple late Virginia 3s and a second straight Duke home loss.

What made the difference as much as anything was the innate, superlative talent of Barrett and Williamson and their ability to get to the rim, even against a Virginia defense built on denying that, and finishing once there. Barrett’s ability to absorb contact and finish in traffic is already at an NBA level; Williamson, who early in the season showed an array of nimble post moves to go with his dunks, continues to show off new facets of his game, this time an aptitude for attacking off perimeter ball screens. Those two scored 57 of Duke’s 72 points. The trio of Barrett, Williamson and Reddish took 47 of Duke’s 51 shots.

Duke may lose again, whether Jones returns as quickly as has been hinted or not. But the Blue Devils have the talent to beat anyone, on any night, even without Jones. It’s a question of harnessing it as well as Duke did Saturday night to defeat the last undefeated and reaffirm its own ambitions.

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

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.