Short-handed and coming off a loss, Duke staked its claim to the No. 1 spot in the nation with a 72-70 win over No. 4 Virginia, Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
With Michigan’s loss earlier in the day, Virginia entered the game as the nation’s last unbeaten team, and the team most likely to supplant the Blue Devils at the top of the polls, following Duke’s upset home loss to Syracuse earlier in the week.
Duke point guard Tre Jones went down early in the Syracuse loss with a separated shoulder, and the Blue Devils struggled on both ends of the floor without him. Jones was in street clothes for the Virginia game, but gave high-fives to fans and teammates with the injured arm.
Without Jones, the Blue Devils had a dogfight with the visiting Cavaliers. The game featured 12 lead changes in the second half, including on seven straight possessions.
“Wow, that’s a high-level game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That’s a big-time game. They don’t get much better than that. The kids on both teams, every possession, was good. If you scored, you beat good defense; if you didn’t score, good defense beat you. Every possession was high-level.”
Without Jones, Duke relied on its two star freshmen even more than usual. R.J. Barrett finished with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Zion Williamson had 27 points and nine rebounds. The pair combined for 35 of Duke’s 51 shots, 21 of the team’s 25 makes and 57 of its 72 points.
“Coach K gives us the freedom to be us,” Williamson said. “He just gets the ball moving, and when there’s movement for us, there’s no telling what we can do.”
Late in the game, with the teams trading one-point leads, Barrett scored four straight points to give the Blue Devils a five-point margin.
“R.J. and Zion were going crazy,” freshman Cam Reddish said. “So I was just doing my best to make sure we won and impact the game in other ways. Let them be them.”
Reddish finished with nine points and eight rebounds, returning to the lineup after missing the Syracuse game with illness.
After struggling against Syracuse’s zone without Jones running the show, Duke shot 51 percent against Virginia’s pack-line defense.
“They made some good plays,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We had our chances but 63 percent is what they shot in the 2nd half. We’re a solid defensive team, but tonight we were not solid enough. That deserves large credit due to their play.”
The game was the second time since 2015 that Duke has faced an unbeaten Virginia team in January, with both teams in the top four. And, for the second time, the Blue Devils emerged victorious.
“They could’ve won, and we did,” Krzyzewski said. “That was really high-level and efficient, and the crowd was great. Overall just a really classy game, and we’re ecstatic that we won.”