No. 23 Duke rested, refocused in win over Virginia

Rasheed Sulaimon (left) and Amile Jefferson each made key shots in the final seconds to secure Duke's win.

DURHAM, N.C. — After No. 23 Duke (13-4, 2-2 ACC) lost two of its last three games at Notre Dame and Clemson, everyone wondered aloud: what’s wrong with the Blue Devils?

It felt odd to see Duke, a program normally so invincible under Mike Krzyzewski, machine-like in its precision, out-executing half its opponents and out-hustling the other half, seem so vulnerable.

As star freshman Jabari Parker has started to hit a bit of a wall, Krzyzewski stuck up for him. He’s human, Krzyzewski said of Parker.

As it turns out, so is Krzyzewski. So are all of us, really, but it never seemed like Duke — or even Krzyzewski, who always seems to get his teams to play harder and better than everyone else’s — was. 

"We haven’t been at our best since the start of conference and I haven’t been at my best since Christmas," Krzyzewski said after Duke’s 69-65 win against Virginia (12-5, 3-1 ACC) . "That’s my responsibility.

"Sometimes things occur that are human and we were there tonight and we were collectively together tonight for the first time in a couple of weeks. It was my responsibility that we weren’t as much as we should have. And I thought today we were."

Krzyzewski lost his older brother Bill on December 26. Both he and his team were noticeably emotional before the Eastern Michigan game on December 28, and it seemingly was going to be something that caused the team to rally together to support their head coach. 

He attended his brother’s funeral in Chicago on January 3 and rejoined his team that night in South Bend, the night before Duke’s third loss of the season. Everyone on the team talked about how Krzyzewski needed them to be there for him going into that game, when the assistant coaches handled much of the preparation.  

Duke would be fine, even after that loss, everyone assumed. Krzyzewski would be fine. Everything would be fine. 

The Blue Devils knocked off Georgia Tech at home on January 7 before blowing a 10-point second-half lead at Clemson this past Saturday and losing by 13 points. Duke’s defense wasn’t good, either on the interior or on the ball. Parker was continuing to struggle. There’s no true post presence for the Blue Devils. Rebounding was a problem. And so on and so on.

Still, there’s no way Duke could lose back-to-back games and fall to 1-3 in the ACC … right? 

The last time Duke lost back-to-back regular season games was in 2009 (a home game to North Carolina, then a game at Boston College). 

The last time Duke lost a road game and came home to lose was 2007, when Duke finished 22-11. Duke lost four in a row that season in that stretch — one on the road, the rare back-to-back home losses, including one to North Carolina — and then at Maryland. 

And it’s been since 2006 that the Blue Devils lost a road game and came home to lose in the next contest; Duke only lost four games that season.

"Look, we’re human beings and human beings have setbacks. Also we’re a program that every year — you don’t get a lifetime membership in the NCAA Tournament. Just because we’ve been in there and have won it four times and we’ve been to 11 Final Fours, you have to pay your dues every year. That’s the way it is," Krzyzewski said. 

"It’s a good club and it’s tough to get in. We’re starting to pay our dues better and the head coach is going to do a better job. We did a better job tonight and I can do better. I can do better."

It doesn’t just happen that Duke has had all this success. It’s not an accident.

Although there are some magical nights at Cameron Indoor Stadium where it feels like it’s predestined.

Virginia was coming off of a blowout win against NC State on Saturday and was as confident as it had been all season. But the Blue Devils got a pep talk about playing better defense, and they took that to heart. Nothing was easy for the Cavaliers, and not much came easily for Duke against the notoriously-stingy Virginia defense, either. 

"Keep them out of the paint, make (UVa leading scorer) Joe Harris work for everything he got and just make those guys see five Duke players, not one-on-one," Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. "Just make those guys see a lot of help, and I think our help defense was good today."

And Krzyzewski, whose competitive spirit was in rare form, added a new wrinkle.

He said after the game that everything was on him, the good and the bad. And he said that after he was "knocked back" from his brother’s death, he missed some of the things with his team he would have normally seen a lot more quickly — one of those being that a lot of his guys were getting tired.

"I’ve had to get more observant with my team. I take full responsibility for those first three (ACC) games. … And part of it is not seeing some things. One of the things is at times we would get tired because we’re not as big as some teams, so getting more guys in would help," Krzyzewski said.

He had a new starting lineup for the Virginia game, but that didn’t even really seem to matter. Three times in the first 10 minutes, Krzyzewski subbed out one lineup for another fresh one. Five-for-five. 

"We’ve been having three guys play 35, 30-plus minutes," So we tend to pace ourselves, and it’s not — we couldn’t pace ourselves today. So it was good for us," Cook said.

"We didn’t know how Coach was going to do it, but he said everybody was going to get the opportunity to fight and to play. We didn’t know how he was going to do it but five was working for us, so we stuck with it."

When the game was over, 11 players saw at least two minutes and 10 at least seven. Nine saw ten or more minutes. No one played more than 29. 

The spark of energy allowed for increased defensive intensity, and it felt like one of those nights that Virginia didn’t have a prayer.

But the Cavaliers just kept sticking around, and Duke — while playing with increased energy and urgency — still isn’t flawless, obviously. Oh, and Virginia’s pretty good, so there’s that. 

Still, even very good teams often come into Cameron and wilt as the game goes on, grasping for a glimmer of momentum or a semblance of a run and coming up empty. 

Virginia made a late surge, clawing back from down 11 with 3:45 to go to tie the game with 1:25 remaining. Then with 38 seconds left, Virginia took the lead, 65-64. 

Uh oh.

Krzyzewski talks a lot about the Cameron crowd being a part of the team. It sounds cheesy sometimes, that a crowd could really help a team win games, or a building, for that matter. 

Those watching at home, though, saw Rasheed Sulaimon’s go-ahead three-pointer from the corner with 22 seconds left bounce straight up in the air and to the right, so close to falling off the side of the rim before somehow changing course in mid-air and falling back through the net.

Few are indifferent about Duke basketball. And so probably half the country muttered angrily to itself about how Duke gets all the breaks. Soft rims at Cameron. A friendly gust of wind. 

It seems even more true when Amile Jefferson, a notoriously bad free-throw shooter, strolls up to the line with four seconds remaining and Duke up three, only to sink both free throws. Well, sink isn’t exactly fair. His second attempt had little to no arc on it and died on the back of the rim before falling softly back through. 

But it went in.

Lucky bounce for Jefferson? Perhaps. But that ignores the fact that Jefferson finished with a game-high 15 rebounds in 28 minutes, absolutely dominating the backboards and getting to seemingly every loose ball.

His most important offensive rebound was before the bounce that everyone would call a lucky one — he retrieved a Rodney Hood airball and somehow got it to Sulaimon in the corner before falling out of bounds.

"(Rodney) got a good look at it. I think it might have got blocked or it was just short. And I saw it earlier. I saw that it was short and I went to it and then I thought I was going to fall out of bounds," Jefferson said. "Rasheed was right there in my vision, hit it and he made a terrific shot. That’s an amazing shot."

And from the 24-second mark to the 4-second mark, Jefferson had an offensive rebound, an assist, a steal, a turnover, a defensive rebound and the two game-sealing free throws. 

"I had to just tell myself that I’ve been working on my free throws. I haven’t shot well. I haven’t shot well at all. So for me, it was calming down," Jefferson said. "It was big shots, and they weren’t my shots — they were Duke shots."

Duke shots?

"I haven’t been shooting well on the season form the line, but when you don’t think about it just being yourself, worried about ‘oh, I’m going to miss this’, you just think ‘My team’s around me. My coaches are around me. My team believes in me. This is a team shot and we need it’, and you go up there and knock it down."

When he came out of the game after that, teammate Andre Dawkins wrapped both arms around him on the bench and tried to tuck Jefferson’s head into the crook of his arm affectionately, as if he couldn’t hug him tightly enough. 

Does it mean Duke’s troubles are over?

Not necessarily. But it means that rather than worrying about individuals — about what was wrong with Sulaimon during his dry spell earlier this season, or why Andre Dawkins wasn’t playing more, or why Parker is struggling now — maybe Duke is better viewed as a whole. 

They got the win tonight as one unit, and not as a Jabari Parker or a Rodney Hood, or even a Rasheed Sulaimon or Amile Jefferson. It was everyone, including their head coach. 

"We just have to run our own race and whatever is said about us, it’s going to be said about us. Win or lose, we’re in the top 10, we’re not in the top 10 we’re this, we’re that, we’re a disappointment, we’re whatever — I have a good basketball team, my kids played their hearts out tonight and we’re going to just keep moving on," Krzyzewski said. 

"We’ll be immune to praise or criticism because we’ll be our own best self-critics. And there won’t be any excuses … we’re just going to play."