They already played two emotional road games earlier this week. They abruptly dismissed a key player just two days ago. They were down 11 points in the second half against the second-ranked team in the nation on its home floor.
Everything suggested Duke was in big trouble at Virginia on Saturday night, yet the Blue Devils somehow found a way to stay afloat in the ACC title race.
In a show of resilience that won't soon be forgotten in Durham, Duke handed last year's ACC champ Virginia its first loss of the season despite trailing by double figures midway through the second half and by five with three minutes to go. The fourth-ranked Blue Devils scored the final 11 points to emerge with a 69-63 victory in a game that they hadn't led since the opening two minutes of the second half.
The key to Duke's comeback was its outside shooters catching fire after the Blue Devils missed their first nine threes of the game. Fifteen of Duke's final 19 points came on shots from behind the arc including the go-ahead 3-pointer from Quinn Cook with 1:20 remaining and the game-clinching dagger from Tyus Jones just over a minute later.
Cook's 3-pointer came after Justin Anderson left him free to help on Okafor and the big man saw the double coming and made a perfect feed. Jones' 3-pointer was just a pull-up right-wing 25 footer at the shot clock buzzer that left his man shaking his head in frustration.
Duke needed that game-ending 3-point barrage from its guards because Virginia's packline defense was geared to wall off the paint and force someone other than Jahlil Okafor to score. The national player of the year candidate managed only 10 points and committed five turnovers against a constant barrage of big-to-big double teams.
That Duke found a way to win without a big night from Okafor ensures the Blue Devils will still be a factor in the ACC title race.
Had Duke lost for the fourth time in seven games, the Blue Devils would have been four games out of first place and essentially eliminated from contention before the calendar even turned to February. Instead they are only two games back of first-place Virginia, not where they expected to be a month ago yet a huge improvement over where they would have stood with a loss.
Virginia may yet win its second straight ACC title, but the Cavaliers made their job a whole lot harder with their offensive futility in the final three minutes. They didn't score a point against Duke's 2-3 zone defense during that stretch.
An ill-advised pass by London Perrantes led to a turnover on their first possession when Duke was within two. Anthony Gill then missed a contested layup on the next possession after the Blue Devils had tied it. Virginia's final chance included a missed free throw by Mike Tobey, an offensive rebound and then an ill-advised driving layup attempt by Tobey with 16 on the shot clock.
Still, this was a game that Duke won, not one that Virginia gave away.
Big three after big three saved the Blue Devils. And now they still have a pulse in the ACC title race.
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