Overshadowed by other more highly touted players in the ACC for most of this season, Virginia's Joe Harris finally delivered a performance Thursday night that was simply too good to ignore.
The 6-foot-6 junior erupted for a career high 36 points, nearly half Virginia's points in a 73-68 victory over third-ranked Duke that will go a long way toward securing an NCAA tournament bid for the Cavaliers.
What was especially impressive about Harris' scoring success was that most of his points didn't come from behind the arc. He sank only 2 of 5 threes, doing his damage instead by moving off screens without the ball for mid-range jumpers, by overpowering Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon off the dribble or by getting to the foul line.
Harris could not have picked a better time for his signature performance because his team needed this win badly.
Virginia featured one of the strangest at-large profiles of any bubble team, one marred by horrible losses to three CAA teams but also boosted by quality wins against Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina and NC State. Add the Duke win to that equation, and the Cavaliers (20-8, 10-5) appear to be in position to make the NCAA tournament as long as they don't flop down the stretch against Boston College, Florida State and Maryland.
That Virginia is within reach of an NCAA bid is partially a product of Harris' emergence as a go-to scorer.
Whereas last season Harris was a sweet-shooting complementary scorer in an offense built around Mike Scott's prowess in the post, Harris has had to become more aggressive this year with Scott in the NBA. He has averaged the fourth-most points in the ACC (16.6) and shot the league's second best percentage from behind the arc (46.4 percent), quietly molding himself into a lock for all-ACC honors.
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On Thursday night, Harris showcased his multi-faceted game in front of a national audience and perhaps played his way into ACC Player of the Year contention. He helped Virginia extend a five-point halftime lead to as many as 16 with 6:38 to go before Duke mounted a mini-rally to make it respectable by the final buzzer.
Harris, a Washington native, was Tony Bennett's first recruit at Virginia because he was so confident he'd fit in the former Washington State coach's structured system. Three years later, that decision has proven to be very wise.
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