Duke passes biggest test of season
DURHAM, N.C. – Duke got a stiff challenge Thursday night from a team that proved it can go toe-to-toe with one of the top teams in the nation.
Virginia came into the evening's affair with just one blemish on its record and riding a 12-game winning streak. But there were more skeptics than believers in the Cavaliers until this night, which is why Duke's growth in its 61-58 victory will rank as one of its best wins of the season no matter who else Mike Krzyzewski's team defeats.
Among the many challenges that go with facing 16th-ranked Virginia – which include its backline defense, patience and poise on offense, and how connected the players are to coach Tony Bennett – senior forward Mike Scott stands out.
Scott missed most of last season because of a knee injury, but he's in better form now than ever before, and perhaps his best half of hoops this season came in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
UVA did a nice job spreading Duke out and finding either open jumpers or – later in the first half – lanes to the rim. This was mostly a result of Scott knocking down jumpers everywhere on the floor, including a three-pointer.
The 6-foot-8 Scott scored 16 of Virginia's 32 points and had a hand in several other baskets. Krzyzewski, who described Scott as "playing as well as anyone in the country," had a simple directive at halftime: Stop him.
This isn't a vintage Duke team defensively, so its issues are going to flare up from time to time. However, the Hall of Fame coach's message at the half was well received.
"We wanted to get Scott tired," Duke freshman Austin Rivers said. "In the first half, he was getting wide open looks, and on defense he wasn't really having to guard anybody. So, at halftime we really wanted to get Scott to have to play at both ends."
That meant rotating Mason (12 points, seven rebounds) and Miles Plumlee (fouled out in 15 minutes) on the Virginia star. Both brothers are 6-foot-10, and Mason's length gives him an even greater reach. Scott scored just seven points after the intermission.
But Duke also repeatedly went inside to Mason in the second half. Plumlee is an adventure at the free throw line, but his power moves made Scott work on defense. And by wearing him down, the trickle effect was that driving lanes closed and the other Cavaliers – save for sophomore Joe Harris – simply weren't comfortable taking the bulk of the shots. UVA looked much more disjointed in the half.
"The Plumlees, I thought, were the key to the game – their physicality and our defense," Krzyzewski said. "I thought we played much better defense on Scott in the second half, and that was both Mason and Miles."
Virginia missed all 11 of its three-point attempts after halftime, including two in the final eight seconds of the game, one of which was from the right corner by Scott. The ball hit the side of the backboard.
Krzyewski and some of his players called the game a "war" because it was. Virginia forced Duke to put on its hard hats and earn a victory the more uncomfortable way. But the Devils aren't so naturally gifted this season. Getting such a win early in conference play should bode well down the road.
"Every game is going to be a war," junior forward Ryan Kelly said. "You have to approach it that way and be willing to do anything to win. … At the end of the day you have to do the dirty work, and if you're willing to do all that and play your hardest, you can come out with a lot of wins."
And it helped that the Wahoos didn't catch Duke off guard. For the questions regarding Duke's issues at point guard, its occasional lack of focus and its defensive struggles compared to past Duke teams, it was exceptionally well prepared for the Cavaliers. Duke didn't take them lightly at all.
"We were very excited about this game," Rivers said. "We came in here very focused; this was probably the most focused we've been all year. Coach said this was going to be the biggest game of the year – bigger than Ohio State, bigger than Kansas – but tonight was a real big ACC game for us."
And a real big ACC win, too.