Springsteen was a different kind of loud and certainly more sustained. Stevie Van Zandt riffing on guitar, the Big Man wailing on sax, and The Boss himself at full throttle.
But other than that evening, I’ve never heard John Paul Jones Arena louder than Thursday.
The Cavaliers not only led throughout but also, and most startling, cuffed the third-ranked Blue Devils around. This with starting power forward Darion Atkins still sidelined with a shin injury and reserve center Mike Tobey slowed by the lingering effects of mononucleosis.
“We’re not the most physical team,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after the ritual court-storming. “I wouldn’t call that a trademark of ours. But today I thought for the most part we were, and it made a difference.”
Here’s how big a difference:
Duke missed 32 shots but had a scant three offensive rebounds, one each by point guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton, and one credited to the team.
Translation: Center Mason Plumlee and forwards Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson combined for zero.
Indeed, Virginia’s swarming interior defense rendered Plumlee, the ACC’s No. 2 scorer and rebounder, irrelevant. He played the entire 40 minutes but managed only five shots, 10 points and seven rebounds.
“It was a very, very physical game and we’re not equipped to that type of game, and we got knocked back,” Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
For all of Joe Harris’ brilliance – his career-high 36 points Thursday are the most by any ACC player since North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes scored 40 against Clemson in the 2011 conference tournament – the Cavaliers’ enforcer was Akil Mitchell.
His 19 points and 12 rebounds are career-bests in ACC play, and he keyed Virginia’s 36-25 rebounding edge. Mitchell was also the primary defender against Plumlee, with Justin Anderson doubling.
“He had to earn his catches and he had to earn his looks,” Bennett said of Plumlee. “Our guys really swarmed him well. … One-on-one it would be hard to guard him.”
Of Mitchell, Bennett added: “He’s so active. … His quickness and his nose for the ball. That was the best I’ve seen him. He made a big difference on the ball screens. … He’s really improving, and you can see it.”
So empowered was Mitchell that he good-naturedly trash-talked Duke’s Seth Curry, his former teammate at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian Academy and an extraordinary shooter. The reason was Mitchell’s unusually accurate free-throw shooting: 9-of-10.
“He’s got a little swag to him,” Evans said of Mitchell. “Sometimes we have to tell him to calm down.”
Duke (24-4, 11-4 ACC) calmed the crowd down by rallying from an 18-6 deficit to within 28-26 early in the second half, but Harris scored six points in a 12-2 run that put Virginia (20-8, 10-5 ACC) back in control.
One possession during that run epitomized the evening.
With Plumlee contesting, Harris missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key. But as Plumlee stood motionless, Harris charged past him, gathered the rebound and made a layup for a 32-26 lead.
Inexcusable lack of effort by Plumlee. Admirable hustle from Harris, a a first-team all-conference lock who, with three regular-season games remaining, absolutely merits player-of-the-year consideration.
“When you’ve got a guy playing at that level, their other kids played well, but it brings everybody up,” Krzyzewski said. “You know you’re playing with a stud.”
Bigger picture: Virginia defeated a top-five team for the first time since conquering No. 3 Duke at University Hall on this very day in 2002. The Cavaliers also moved to within a game of the second-place Blue Devils in the ACC standings and, if they win out against Boston College, Florida State and Maryland, could well be the No. 2 seed for the league tournament behind Miami.
“Remember this forever,” Evans said.
“I’m losing my voice already,” Mitchell said.
On Jan. 28, Virginia was No. 114 on the Rating Percentage Index, not within shouting distance of NCAA tournament consideration. One month later, the Cavaliers tipped off against Duke at No. 67 and clearly in the conversation.
Thursday will earn them another bump (Morning update: The Cavs are 58th.) but to avoid a pressurized ACC tournament and/or stressful Selection Sunday, Virginia would be well-advised to keep winning.
Easily lost amid the anticipation for Thursday: The Cavaliers’ next two tests are on the road, at Boston College and Florida State. They are 1-3 in Chestnut Hill since the Eagles joined the ACC and have lost eight straight in Tallahassee, last winning there in 2001.
“Our destiny’s in our own hands,” athletic director Craig Littlepage, the 2006 NCAA selection committee chairman, said before tip. “We don’t have to worry about somebody else beating this team or that team. … If we take care of business, we’ve earned ourselves, I think, a spot in the tournament.”
Krzyzewski would not disagree, and he dismissed any notion of Duke gazing ahead to Saturday’s much-hyped rematch with Miami.
“We have not mentioned one word about Miami,” Krzyzewski said. “We were totally vested in this. Virginia just played great. … They had our full attention and full preparation for this. They beat us when we were trying to be at our best, and it was because of them that we were not.”
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