Maybe Duke uses remote control basketballs during home games. Maybe physics works differently at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Maybe Rasheed Sulaimon just has incredible shooting touch.
Whatever the explanation, Duke can thank an extraordinarily fortuitous bounce on a late Sulaimon 3-pointer for a victory that saved the Devils from their first 1-3 start in ACC play in 18 years.
With Duke trailing by one after frittering away an 11-point lead in the final five minutes, Amile Jefferson rebounded a missed shot by Rodney Hood underneath the rim and kicked it to Sulaimon spotted up in the left corner. Sulaimon's 3-pointer sailed long, caromed high off the rim and somehow fell straight through to give Duke a two-point lead with 19 seconds to go and propel the Blue Devils to a 69-65 victory.
The improbable shot from Sulaimon may someday be viewed as a turning point for a Duke team that began the season with national title hopes but has not played like a contender in recent weeks. Plagued by inept defense and rebounding and an offense that regressed from its early-season brilliance, Duke dropped two of its first three ACC games against shorthanded Notre Dame and unheralded Clemson.
Mike Krzyzewski shouldered the blame for Duke's poor play of late, telling reporters he hasn't coached to his usual level since his brother died in Chicago on Dec. 26 at age 71.
"I got knocked back after Christmas," Krzyzewski told reporters. "I've been knocked back for a few weeks.
"Those first three games were on me."
The shooting guard who has been in and out of Krzyzewski's dog house this season came off the bench Monday but delivered his best performance of the season. He scored a game-high 21 points on only 11 shots, played solid defense and made all the hustle plays he hadn't early in the season, from fighting over screens, to diving for loose balls, to ripping the ball out of Akil Mitchell's hands early in the second half for an emphatic tone-setting steal.
The rest of the Duke players appeared to feed off Sulaimon's energy and assertiveness and off Krzyzewski's unusual line-change style substitution pattern of inserting four or five new players at one time. Duke not only outplayed Virginia but outworked the Cavs, with Amile Jefferson contributing much of the dirty work, including 10 points and 15 rebounds.
For all the good things Duke did, however, it's far too soon to declare all of Duke's issues solved.
Holding Virginia to 38.2 percent shooting is encouraging, but the Cavs aren't the type of team that has given Duke trouble. They rely on motion offense and lack the athletic slashers that have exposed the Devils' inability to stay in front of their man on the perimeter and lack of rim protector in the paint.
What's more, even Virginia was able to get to the rim consistently against Duke. The Cavs might not have needed the late comeback to make things interesting had they just finished a few more of their layups in traffic at the rim.
In addition to the defensive side, Duke's offense still isn't functioning at anywhere near the level it was a month ago in spite of Sulaimon's eruption.
Jabari Parker, who scored 19 or more points in 11 of his first 12 games, tallied just eight points on 3 of 11 shooting against Virginia. The highly touted freshman is averaging just 10.5 points per game in ACC play and has seemed to function adjacent to Duke's offense rather than as the centerpiece of it.
If Duke can reintegrate Parker into its offense and improve even incrementally on defense and on the glass, the Devils still have the talent to challenge Syracuse for the ACC title and to creep back into the national championship picture.
For right now though, Duke just needed a win. And thanks to a crazy bounce on a Sulaimon 3-pointer, the Devils got it.
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