Tony Bennett: We had to run to the fight
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. -- How do you take down a top-five team? Normally the formula involves a home crowd, a hot shooter, and often a barrage of threes.
On Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena, and needing a win against No. 3 Duke to all but ensure a trip to the NCAA tournament, Virginia had only two of those components.
When the final buzzer sounded and the orange crowd spilled onto the hardwood, the math still added up to a convincing 73-68 Cavaliers victory that wasn’t quite as close as the final score made it look.
Junior Joe Harris torched the Blue Devils with a career-high 36 points, the most by an ACC player this year, and the most prolific scoring output by a Duke opponent since Al Thornton scored 37 in 2006.
Averaging 20 points per game over his last eight, Harris sparked the Cavs all evening by slashing to the basket, collecting four offensive rebounds to contribute to UVa’s 18 second-chance points. Overall, Virginia dominated in the paint, out-rebounding Duke 36-25, including 9-3 on the offensive end.
Akil Mitchell was the only other Cavalier in double figures, recording his ninth double-double of the season – and the tenth of his career – with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Senior point guard Jontel Evans was third on the team with 6 points.
Every bit as impressive as Harris’ offensive output was the work by Mitchell and a steady stream of double-teamers, usually Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte, on Duke star Mason Plumlee. The Player of the Year candidate was held to a disappointing 10 points, often forced to kick the ball outside to perimeter shooters Seth Curry, Quinn Cook, and Rasheed Sulaimon.
“He’s a great player,” said Mitchell afterwards. “But I think the post trap really threw him off a little bit. I really attribute that to Justin [Anderson] and Evan [Nolte] to getting there with their hot hands.”
Suffocating defense, particularly on Plumlee, has become a prerequisite for beating Duke, a fact that played to Virginia’s strength – they ranked fourth nationally in points allowed (54.0/game) entering the contest. Though Duke exceeded that total, Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett likely isn’t too upset this evening.
“I thought we made them, for the most part, take contested shots,” said Bennett. “There were stretches where our defense was really good. At the end we struggled, we made some turnovers offensively that we didn’t need, to make it that close.”
With little leeway in the paint, Coach K’s boys were forced to live and die with the three. One night after older brother Stephen lit up Madison Square Garden with 54 points, Seth Curry did his best to keep pace. He led Duke with 28 points, hitting on four of eight from beyond the arc, but it wasn’t nearly enough to do anything but keep the score close. As he was catching fire in the second half a torrent of Duke fouls put UVa into the bonus with 11:30 remaining, effectively dousing any momentum for a comeback.
Squarely on the NCAA bubble two weeks ago, Virginia has played their way into near-lock status. Keeping pace with UNC at 20-8 (10-5) in a tie for third in the ACC, UVa has burnished their resume with a marquee win – one that should finally be big enough to overshadow their inordinate number of bad losses.
With the chance to finish with 23 wins after looming dates with Boston College, Florida State, and Maryland, the work certainly isn’t done – but a corner has been turned. Talk around the Cavs will shift from tournament inclusion to seeding possibilities.
Look for Virginia, behind their star scorer, to block out any such talk and take care of business, just as they did in tonight’s impressive win.
“This is a big win for us and a big win for our program,” said Harris. “We need to finish out the season strong; there can be no slouching in conference play. We have to finish the year on a high note and hopefully we’ll be fortunate to make the tournament.”