CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—Duke sweated out the final 12 seconds of last night’s taut, high-intensity 61-58 win over Virginia last night, with the Cavaliers missing two pretty good looks at 3-pointers that would have sent the game into overtime. Afterwards, both head coaches, the Blue Devils’ Mike Krzyzewski and Virginia’s Tony Bennett, made similar—and telling—telling self-corrections in their postgame comments.
First Bennett. Lauding the way his team clawed back from a nine-point deficit at the 4:54 mark to have a chance to tie the game as time expired, Bennett said: “The kids battled.” And then he looked away and down, as if to the shadow of his wiser conscience, and made an emendation: “The young men battled.”
About 10 minutes later, Krzyzewski was praising Virginia’s Mike Scott, the ascendant forward who has catapulted himself into Player of the Year conversations with his recent play. Scott scored half of the Cavs’ 32 first-half points, and Krzyzewski said that “he was responsible for 60 per cent of their offense. When a kid does that”—and he, like Bennett, interrupted himself: “I shouldn’t call him a kid. When a man does that in this type of game, he’s a high-level player.”
This was a game for men. It was close, hard-fought, played at a high level and with strong focus. Bodies hit the floor often. Two players had their eyes poked. The referees generally let ’em play. Except for freshman Austin Rivers—who was, of course, the No. 1 recruit in America this season and is the polished scion of a basketball don—Duke’s greener contingent mostly sat. “We’re young,” Krzyzewski said, twice in a row, but he made his team older last night. Point guards Quinn Cook (freshman) and Tyler Thornton (sophomore) combined for just 28 minutes of action, and reserves Josh Hairston (sophomore, although he celebrated his 20th birthday yesterday) and Michael Gbinije (freshman) didn’t play at all. Sorry, boys. Andre Dawkins logged 29 minutes, his highest total since December 10 versus Washington, scored 10 points, and had what Krzyzewski called “by far the best defensive game he’s ever played.”
But Dawkins’ increased minutes didn’t owe solely to his age. It also had to do with the older men—the coaches—exchanging chess-like tactical blows. When Bennett switched his guards’ defensive assignments, that allowed Krzyzewski to let Seth Curry run the point in a more favorable matchup against the Cavs’ Sammy Zeglinski—which in turn allowed Krzyzewski to let Curry, Dawkins and Rivers share the floor together, something they haven’t done as often lately as they did early in the season. Meanwhile, Miles Plumlee got more work covering the formidable Scott, and helped hold the tiring star to seven second-half points. Plumlee the elder fouled out with about three minutes left, having played just 15 hard-hitting minutes, including a fast-break throwdown dunk that forced a Virginia timeout about a third of the way through the second half.
Like I said: It was a man’s game.
And fun to watch, too. Much has been made of Virginia’s slow-it-down style, and the 61-58 result was probably in fact a little higher-scoring than Bennett might have liked (“I thought we played a quicker tempo than they usually play, Krzyzewski said later). So it’s easy to imagine a dully plodding offense and one of those suffocating but conservative defenses that is congested and tiresome to watch. (Just ask the Alabama Crimson Tide, who won the national football championship the other day while overwhelming Louisiana State, and the American TV audience, with stultifying defense. People like scoring in America, as any frustrated soccer fan can tell you.)
But in fact, Virginia’s offense is extremely active. The guards basically never stop moving, running by picks, crossing the court, in and out, left to right, making their defenders chase them around. The Cavs run back-door cuts beautifully. When they miss shots, they get after rebounds; 15 of their 35 boards last night were of their own misses, including some at-the-rim putbacks.
And of course they have Mike Scott, who might very well be the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year when it’s all said and done. Scott was a dervish in the first half, going 7-10 and basically controlling the game, as Virginia went to the locker room with a 32-28 halftime lead. They shot over 50 per cent from the floor in the fist half.
The Cavs’ defense was a pleasure to watch, too. As Krzyzewski noted after the game, they had Duke’s bread-and-butter ball screens pretty well neutralized for just about the whole game. They rotated well for the most part. But they didn’t have the interior defensive presence to contend with the Plumli. Krzyzewski said that “the Plumlees were the keys to the game.”
Indeed, Duke came out in the second half determined to run its offense inside. Mason Plumlee took four of the Blue Devils’ first seven shots of the second stanza, making three, all from close range. Krzyzewski praised “his verve, his resolve to go to the basket.” Less than three minutes after the last of Plumlee’s buckets, Tyler Thornton cleared a rebound off of a Scott miss, took a dribble or two, found Miles Plumlee running out about 60 feet downcourt, and fed him a long, beautiful pass for a crowd-electrifying dunk.
By then, Virginia’s 32-28 lead was long gone. Duke was up, 45-38.
Virginia called timeout. That stopped what had turned into a 6 1/2-minute, 17-6 Duke run, and the Blue Devils’ lead ranged from 5-9 points for nearly the next 13 tough, heavyweight-bout minutes. Yet when, with just 47 seconds to play in the game, Akil Mitchell tip-slammed home a miss by Jontel Evans, it brought the never-quit Cavaliers—somehow, improbably—to within three points.
Virginia called another timeout, and their full-court press afterwards nearly caused a 10-second violation by the Blue Devils, who wound up burning a timeout of their own in order to regroup with 38 seconds to go. Once more, Virginia’s defense held, and Duke had to sweat out not one but two open three-pointers, by Scott and Evans, to secure their 44th straight home win. After Evans’s shot bounced off the rim and the buzzer sounded and the Cameron crowd roared—if it is possible to roar in relief, then that’s what Cameron did—the referee patted the deflated Virginia guard on the back in respectful, man-to-man consolation.
He needed it. Evans and his backcourt mate, Sammy Zeglinski, shot a combined 0-14 in last night’s game, never got to the free throw line, and scored not a single point (after averaging about 16 to date this season). It’s remarkable that Virginia stayed as close as they did despite the double goose-egg these two posted. Some of Zeglinski’s eight misses were wide-open looks—Bennett said he thought Zeglinski looked “sluggish”—but he also played 37 minutes and surely got tired, which never helps a cold shooter find his stroke. Duke’s defense, throughout the game, save for Scott’s first-half outburst, was excellent. “We can play defense, too,” Krzyzewski made sure to say, in case the Cavaliers and their second-in-the-county scoring defense (50.7 ppg.) had designs on hogging all the accolades.
The offense deserves praise, as well, especially in the second half, when Duke’s commitment to working the ball inside helped free up the guards for open shots, too. Duke shot a blistering 60.9 per cent in the second half, and 52.2 per cent for the game, easily the best mark by any Virginia opponent this year. Duke’s high percentage was achieved in spite of making just five of 20 three-point attempts. (Virginia was even worse, 3-16.) And had Mason Plumlee not missed eight of his 10 free throws—ugh—the game wouldn’t have come down to its final shot.
(Hard to know what to make of Plumlee’s atrocious free throw shooting. He has a fairly soft touch, but it seems like most of his attempts hit the back iron. When he tries to compensate, he leaves them short. He could very well wind up costing Duke a game before the season ends; if nothing else, he’s such a liability that Krzyzewski has to consider removing him on offensive possessions late in close games—he didn’t last night—but that takes his best post player out of the game.)
I’ve spent a good deal of time talking about the Cavs in this supposedly Duke-centric report not only because Virginia played well and nearly managed to win, but really more because it was a pleasure to watch such a good game, between two good teams, at Cameron. Not since the very first game of Duke’s season, the one-point white-knuckle win over Belmont, has a team that can really bring it against the Blue Devils stepped into Cameron. The crowd was louder. The place was hotter (including the press room; Krzyzewski began his postgame comments by asking which of the athletic department folks was in charge of air conditioning). The Cavaliers weren’t cowed. Tony Bennett is a calm, canny coach. Virginia led the game for a 10-minute stretch that spanned halftime.
Which is to say, welcome to the ACC season. There are no more gimme games. Even though Cameron Indoor will receive visits from middling teams like Wake Forest and Maryland and non-conference interloper St. John’s—all three of whom are clustered in the gray middle-third of the Ken Pomeroy rankings—none of them are rollovers. They all have talent, and pedigree, and historic rivalries with Duke. The season has grown up, its childhood probably ended by last week’s loss at Temple. Pretty much everyone Duke plays from here on out can, unlike Colorado State, Western Michigan et al, beat them.
It’s almost as if that hasn’t quite hit home yet—and I do mean home. Here was a truly arresting moment—the indelible moment—from last night’s game: With 4:53 remaining to play, the Cavs’ Scott went to the free throw line and made the first of two shots. It was 57-49, Duke, at that point, the game almost, sort of, imaginably, in hand, it might have seemed—especially since Seth Curry had just made a layup while getting fouled on the previous possession, matching Duke’s game-high lead at nine points.
But Curry, uncharacteristically, missed the and-1 free throw that would have completed the three-point play and given the Blue Devils their first double-digit lead. Curry is an almost 90 per cent free throw shooter. It seemed a given that he would make it, so even though he missed, the crowd was still in a comfortable lull of sorts, seeing victory on the horizon, and they stayed subdued as Scott was fouled just moments later. After he made his first free throw, it was just an eight-point game, but Cameron had grown unusually quiet, especially given that these were the final minutes of a close game against a top-20 conference rival.
And then this: None other than Michael William Krzyzewski himself got to his feet, raised his arms and addressed himself broadly to the entire student section across the court from him, and shouted, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
The kids in the stands are also youngsters, just like the players on the court, but they’re not as far along in their development as Krzyzewski’s charges, who have played eight road games in addition to the eight they’ve played at Cameron—they are basically twice as seasoned as this year’s Cameron Crazies. The crowd was not, in this moment, equal to the situation at hand. Krzyzewski had to coach the fans. After his exhortation, he sat down angrily and, if my lip-reading is correct, added, in bewildered fury at his faithful’s failure to blow, “What the fuck?”
They began to make the noise he asked for. Scott, on cue, missed the second free throw, offsetting the one Curry had missed seconds earlier; and a little less than five minutes later, Duke escaped the Virginia scare. But it took full and deep—and, frankly, grownup—effort to pull it off. It’s only too bad that these two teams aren’t scheduled to play again this season. We’ll have to hope that the ACC Tournament manufactures a rematch.
In the season-long life cycle of a college basketball team, Duke is at the point where it has just entered adulthood, especially after last night’s test against veteran Virginia. The team, now presumably coming together, could be expected to start to assume a consistent and unique character, reliable habits, individuation. So hear this firm assertion from Krzyzewski: “I read something today that somebody showed me that [said] we don’t have an identity,” he said. “We’re not looking for an identity. We’re looking to be good.”
It was a reminder that, in sports, you don’t need a winning personality. Winning is personality.
Duke goes to Clemson to take on the not-very-impressive Tigers this Sunday. But we also thought Georgia Tech wasn’t much to be reckoned with, and the Yellow Jackets made the Blue Devils work hard for an 81-74 win in Atlanta over the weekend. The fun, sportsfans, has begun. Enjoy it.
Hey, before I sign off, let me put in a plug for my review of Gene Wojciechowski’s The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball—and not just as self-promotion. Although I have reservations about the book, which as you probably know is about the now-legendary 1992 East Regional Final (if you don’t know, you really need to read it), it’s an absolute must-read for anyone interested in Duke basketball. And if you need the personal touch to pique your interest, you can hear Wojciechowski, a senior ESPN columnist, read from the book himself at Durham’s Regulator bookstore tonight at 7:00 P.M. He’s got a scramble of a last name, but given that he shares it with Duke assistant head coach (and former player) Steve, that Durhamites have long since mastered K-r-z-y-z-e-w-s-k-i, and that the Regulator is, you know, a bookstore, it’s a lowdown dirty shame that they couldn’t manage to spell his name correctly.