Down 63-52 with less than four minutes left to play in Cameron Indoor, UVa needed points in a hurry. And the Cavaliers got them, scrapping and clawing their way to a 13-1 run and taking a 65-64 lead with 36.5 second remaining.
But Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon had other intentions. After Amile Jefferson corralled an offensive board on a forced Rodney Hood jumper, Sulaimon, who had a game-high 21 points, made a 3-pointer that needed one bounce off the rim and then a kiss from the backboard before it fell through the next. It gave the Blue Devils a two-point lead in a game they'd go on to win 69-65.
Of Suliamon's go-ahead shot UVa's Malcolm Brogdon, who had a team-high 17 points in the loss, said: "I knew it was going to drop. I just knew it was that kind of night for them."
Though the Cavaliers (12-5, 3-1 ACC) had a chance with 13.5 seconds left to play, Jefferson's long arms thwarted again gave them problems, this time deflecting a pass on a designed play for Joe Harris that both he and his head coach were confident would provide a good look. On the inbounds, Akil Mitchell, who had a rough night on the offensive end, caught the pass and turned, his body facing the corner where Harris was about to come free. But Mitchell lofted the pass almost without looking and instead of finding Harris, the ball wound up on the floor.
Instead of UVa getting a clean look at the game winner, Harris took a shot in the lane under major duress, Duke got the rebound, Jefferson was fouled, and then made two free throws several seconds later. Only at that point could the Blue Devils relax, their home winning streak over the Wahoos in tact.
While the misguided pass may have sealed the win, it was Sulaimon's shot that brought the Blue Devils home.
"I was hoping it wouldn't [go in]," Brogdon said of that shot. "But I knew we were in Cameron. That shot was going to drop and were going to have to make another play."
On a night when Duke (13-4, 2-2), not known for its work on the glass, managed to grab eight offensive boards none were bigger than the one Jefferson pulled before Sulaimon's 3-pointer. Even so, UVa had a chance late and got there because despite being down by as many as 13, the Wahoos fought.
"I think we kept battling," Brogdon said. "I think we just played with a lot of heart."
It took a lot to hang in what looked at several points like it might be a Blue Devil blowout. By the first media timeout, Duke led 8-0 and UVa had as many turnovers as shot attempts.
But the Wahoos dug deep. They came back to make it 12-10 going into the next media timeout only to see the Blue Devils score the next seven points. All told, it was a 36-28 halftime lead for the Blue Devils, who only trailed in between Brodgon's second free-throw make and Sulaimon's 3-pointer.
"It's the small plays that win you ballgames," Harris said later. "I don't think we necessarily did that there at the end of the game."
Said head coach Tony Bennett of UVa's called play down by two with 13.5 seconds left, "We had Joe coming open on a little flare-drift screen...We got Joe with a similar 3 to start the second half and we've worked on that little action. It's the action we wanted, we just didn't execute the pass to get a look at it."
Virginia had come in with a three-game conference winning streak built on road wins at Florida State and at NC State two days ago. Duke, which lost at Clemson on Saturday, decided to go with a line-change strategy against UVa, as the Blue Devils routinely subbed out four or five players at a time.
"It was strange," Sulaimon said of the line-change moves. "But it worked out really well."
The pressure Duke was able to generate thanks in large part to playing nine players 10 minutes or more each was evident. But still, UVa out rebounded Duke, outscored the Blue Devils in the paint 32-18, in second-chance points 19-11, and in fast-break points 7-0.
But Duke did just enough to win a game in a series that has become a tight one the past few years: Duke won by three in 2012, UVa won by five last season, and this Duke win by four.
Though Mitchell did an impressive job of checking freshman standout Jabari Parker, who finished 3-of-11 shooting, it was the last called play as well as his free-throw shooting that left so much to be desired. While he hadn't been himself prior to conference games, his play coming in had gone back to resembling the All-ACC year he had in 2012-2013. Though Duke never fouled him intentionally for the sake of costing UVa points, Mitchell's struggles (1-of-5 from the charity stripe that included one air ball) pushed Bennett to go offense-defense with his senior forward late.
As the team prepares for Florida State in Charlottesville this weekend and then the daunting ACC schedule thereafter, Mitchell said he's well aware of what's ailing him at the line. It's "absolutely" a mental issue for him shooting free throws, he said.
"There's a lot on my mind right now," Mitchell added. "But we've got to bounce back from it. We've got another game Saturday and a long season ahead of us."