Harris, Virginia make tourney case vs. Duke

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia proved Thursday night what a lot of people who have actually paid attention to the Cavaliers have known for some time: They are an NCAA Tournament team.

The Cavs stunned No. 3 Duke at John Paul Jones Arena, 73-68, allowing the Blue Devils little comfort in operating as they prefer while junior Joe Harris sped past Duke’s defense and made his own case for major postseason honors.

And yet, perhaps most indicative of just how good Virginia can be, the Cavs still left a lot of points on the court and could have had a far more lopsided win, leading by 14 with 3:22 to play.

That’s how much better Virginia was than Duke, and that should be more than enough for the naysayers fixated on a late-December nonconference loss to finally relent and welcome Tony Bennett’s team to national relevance.

“This is a big win for us and a big win for our program,” said Harris, who leads the Cavaliers in scoring at 17.3 points per game. “We need to finish the season out strong; there can be no slouching in conference play. We have to finish the year on a high note and hopefully we’ll be fortunate enough to make the tournament.”

This victory gives Virginia (20-8, 10-5 ACC) four wins over teams in the top 25 of the RPI. In addition to beating the Blue Devils here, Virginia has also beaten NC State and North Carolina at home and won at Wisconsin. It also owns a win over a now-surging Tennessee, among others.  

Conversely, the NCAA selection committee won’t ignore the Dec. 22 loss to RPI No. 322 Old Dominion, nor should it. It won’t dismiss puzzling defeats at Clemson, Wake Forest and George Mason, and at home to Delaware, either. Injuries and all, that’s Virginia’s résumé. But that résumé’s most recent entries are nine wins in the last 12 ACC games. Bennett’s team has also scored 73 or more points in six of its last seven contests, putting to rest the ridiculous notion the Cavs can only win slow, plodding affairs.

The Wahoos have come a long way since those disjointed days of November and December and are a different team right now.

“I think were different personnel-wise, too,” Bennett said, alluding to the fact that the team has its full roster available and that the young players are far more experienced.

“It’s part of having a young team and just getting better, understanding how you have to play, and then having guys play at a high level.”

Nobody has reached at a higher level in any ACC game this season than Harris did on this night.

Harris’ 36 points are the most scored by an ACC player this season, and he did this with a program known for its stingy defense intent on slowing him down.

But the 6-foot-6, 223-pound native of Washington state scored from the perimeter (2 for 5 on 3-pointers), short jumpers in the lane, driving to the basket, following missed shots, and by converting 10 of 12 free-throw attempts.

Harris even handled the ball late and handed out a pair of assists, had two blocked shots, and added a steal for good measure. But it’s more than just his numbers. He’s tough — physically and mentally, is a leader, and is seemingly always in the right place at the right time.

“When Joe gets that look in his eye that he’s not going to be denied, he’s hard to stop because of his strength and size,” Bennett said. “He’s playing very good basketball. We needed that.”

Duke (24-4, 11-4) senior Seth Curry, who has been the target of many defenses in his career and finished with 28 points on the night, had nothing but praise for Harris, who made a strong case for ACC Player of the Year on a night the possible leader for the award, Duke’s Mason Plumlee, was held to 10 points and seven rebounds.

“He’s good,” Curry said. “He killed us in every way. He scored off a lot of tough plays — loose balls and cuts and rebounds. He’s the main one whose energy we didn’t match.”

But really, Duke was outmatched at every spot on the floor. Virginia had 11 more rebounds and held Duke to just eight assists and only three fast-break points.

This was a thorough victory for Virginia. It wasn’t a fluke and it shouldn’t just get the Cavaliers onto the bubble.

The eyes don’t lie, and it’s time the nation takes notice.