No college basketball team in the country would have beaten Duke on Saturday night. None.
The Blue Devils’ lone statistical flaw this season has been 3-point accuracy, and on those occasions when they shoot well beyond the arc, they are untouchable. That’s how sound they are otherwise. That’s how gifted the roster is.
Virginia discovered as much Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena in an 81-71 loss to No. 2 Duke. The Blue Devils made 13 of 21 from deep in what was, given the caliber of opponent, their finest performance since opening the season with a 118-84 thumping of Kentucky.
The No. 3 Cavaliers (20-2, 8-2 ACC) were the last team against which anyone would figure to shake a 3-point funk. Virginia began the day first nationally in 3-point defense at 24.7 percent and hadn’t allowed more than eight made 3s in a game this season.
But Duke, ranked 306th in 3-point shooting at 30.8 percent entering Saturday, made its first five from beyond the arc and seven of its first eight in racing to a 14-point first-half lead. Freshmen RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish did most of the damage, hitting a combined 11 of 19.
Most distressing to Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett, a vast majority of the Blue Devils’ 3-point attempts were open, a stark contrast to Virginia’s 72-70 setback at Cameron Indoor Stadium three weeks ago, when Duke shot 2 for 14 from beyond the arc.
Here’s why the shots were open: Since the Blue Devils (21-2, 9-1) scored 46 points in the paint and penetrated at will against them last month, the Cavaliers were obsessed with clogging the paint Saturday.
“I thought we were a little slow to our closeouts,” Bennett said. “We really tried to keep them out of the lane and jam the lane, and we probably overcorrected in terms of that. You’ve got to read when is (your teammate) OK on the ball and then leave and be there on the catch. I thought there were too many of those where we were staying a little long. But we did jam the lane, so we got that going for us.”
Hey, when you get beaten by the nation’s No. 2 team authoring a benchmark performance, why not show a little gallows humor?
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski credited his players with noticing, and exploiting, Virginia’s defensive tactics.
“I don’t think it’s anything I did,” he said, “but my players felt it. I have good players, so maybe that little (shooting) room they took advantage of it without any kind of coaching. They just did that. Really good players sometimes, not sometimes, they make coaches look pretty good and pretty smart.”
Despite Duke’s blistering start, Virginia was within 41-37 early in the second half. But Reddish made three 3-pointers in the next two-plus minutes to put Duke back in command.
The Cavaliers’ last gasp was at 66-61, but Marques Bolden overpowered Jay Huff in the paint for an easy layup before Zion Williamson spiked a De’Andre Hunter 3-point jumper into the stands. That led to a desperate Ty Jerome heave and shot-clock violation, followed by a Williamson stickback and Tre Jones jumper.
The lead was 12. The outcome was decided.
“There’s two people in the world maybe that can make those plays,” Bennett said of Williamson’s block and overall athleticism, “and they were both in our gym. … Special, special talent. That’s a gift, and he’s using it.”
The other person is LeBron James, who sat courtside Saturday night.
Like James, Williamson will likely be the No. 1 overall selection of the NBA draft. And while much of his talent is unmistakable, there’s a subtle unselfishness to his game that is refreshing.
Williamson simply refuses to force things offensively. He didn’t score in the second half until the aforementioned stickback with 4:03 remaining, and that was only his second shot of the half.
Still, Williamson finished with 18 points, five assists, five rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals. Pretty darn complete.
But if any player might supplant Williamson at the top of the draft, it’s Barrett. He torched Virginia for 30 points last month on an array of drives and making only one 3-pointer. Saturday he hit six from deep and scored a game-high 26.
Moreover, Jones who missed the first Virginia game with a shoulder injury, contributed 13 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals as Duke scored the most points in regulation by any team against the Cavaliers since Tennessee’s 87 in December 2013.
Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome scored 16 points each for Virginia, but each was scoreless in the opening 15 minutes.
“It was one of my poorer performances in the first 15 minutes of the first half,” Guy said. “Lot of uncharacteristic things and unacceptable things for a third-year and captain who’s been there and done that.”
Any chance the Cavaliers had of overcoming the Blue Devils’ shooting vanished with 14 turnovers that helped fuel Duke’s 17-0 advantage in fast-break points. That sloppiness will have to be corrected if Virginia is to rebound Monday at ACC co-leader North Carolina.
“You can’t beat a team like Duke,” Bennett said, “especially when they’re shooting at that clip … without playing a really sounder, cleaner game.”
David Teel, 757-247-4636, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @DavidTeelatDP