Lack of fight costs Duke possible top seed

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee sat just a few feet apart in Duke’s locker room late Thursday night physically drained but not confused about what had transpired over the previous two hours.

The third-ranked Blue Devils lost 73-68 to Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena in a game that was more lopsided than the final score suggests.

Duke trailed by 14 points with nearly three minutes left and was reeling on the floor. It was beaten soundly by a team that if a draft were to occur of players from both rosters, would be nearly intact by the time the reserves were all that remained for Duke.

But for some reason Curry couldn’t explain, Duke didn’t match Virginia’s energy. And as a result, Duke simply couldn’t match Virginia.

“They were just physical,” said Curry, who had 28 points, 23 in the second half. “They didn’t let us run our cuts the way we wanted to, they showed real hard on ball screens and trapped in the post. We just weren’t physical enough and we didn’t match their energy and physicality to start the game.”

Virginia led 9-0 and 15-4, as two Blue Devils – Rasheed Sulaimon and Curry – shot air balls. And while the Devils nearly caught the Cavaliers at 22-21, listless Duke never could get over the hump. And instead of staying right there, they watched the Cavs, mainly Joe Harris, open up a workable margin.

Here are some of Duke’s ugly numbers that tell a clear tale:

The Blue Devils (24-4, 11-4) shot just 39.6 percent from the floor, including only 32 percent from 3-point range, and that includes Curry’s 4-for-8 performance. Duke had just eight assists on its 21 field goals, managed on three fast-break points, and an alarming five second-chance points. The Devils were also outrebounded by 11 in part because they were slow to box out on both ends of the floor.

Virginia was most effective not letting ACC Player of the Year candidate Mason Plumlee get comfortable touches most of the night. Plumlee said he felt like there were always four and sometimes six eyes on him at all times, and no matter what a Cavalier was always within an arm’s reach.

“Before the catch they were playing like a man-and-a-half, and then on the catch the four man would run and double,” Plumlee explained. “They were quick double teams. Sometimes they would stay with the double and sometimes they would go away.

“We worked on it in practice and I don’t know how we didn’t do a better job of making them pay for that.”

For Plumlee, who came in averaging 17.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, the 10-point, seven-rebound performance was his second poor effort in the last two weeks. The other, a four-point, three-rebound game came two weeks ago in a loss at Maryland. Afterward, Plumlee’s Hall of Fame coach said the 6-foot-11 senior was tired.

There were no such excuses by Mike Krzyzewski after this defeat. He did, however, reference the absence of senior forward and third leading scorer Ryan Kelly as part of Duke’s problem. Kelly has missed Duke’s last 13 games with a foot injury but is close to returning. Without him, Plumlee has at times struggled because defenses were laying off of Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson, both of whom have been the primary substitutes for Kelly.

Neither player is much of a scoring threat, so double down on Plumlee has been a consistent game plan. It worked on this night.

“Those kids have done a good job for us but tonight they didn’t play very well,” Krzyzewski said. “We had zero offensive rebounds from that position and that position is not blocked out.”

Given Duke’s remaining schedule, Thursday’s loss means earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament appears less likely. The Blue Devils host Miami on Saturday evening, and keep in mind, the Hurricanes beat then-No. 1 Duke by 27 points in their first meeting.

Duke also closes the regular season at surging North Carolina. Two more ACC losses could send the Devils to the fifth spot in the ACC Tournament, meaning Krzyzewski’s team would have to play on Thursday and win four games to capture the championship.

This was a blow to Duke’s aspirations for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and ends its ACC regular season title hopes. Now it must quickly regroup to take on an even more formidable opponent than Virginia.

“That’s what we want,” Curry said. “We want to get back out on the curt and play another game as soon as possible. Whenever you have a bad game like this as a team you want to get back out there and redeem yourself.”