To the delight of 14,593 fans, many of whom stormed the court in celebration, Virginia pulled off its biggest win of the season, defeating No. 3 Duke, 73-68, in a game it never trailed.
It will go down as the Cavaliers’ first victory over one of the nation’s elite since besting then-No. 3 Duke on Feb. 28, 2002. But perhaps more important, this was the sort of signature victory Virginia’s NCAA tournament profile had been lacking.
The Cavaliers’ latest triumph came about in typical fashion for a Tony Bennett-coached team. Virginia (20-8, 10-5 ACC) controlled the pace, played menacing defense and watched its leading scorer outshine his more heralded Duke counterparts.
Harris set a new career with 36 points on 12-for-20 shooting, the most points any player has scored in an ACC game this season. The performance had Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski calling Harris one of the best players in the country.
Once Virginia jumped out to a 15-4 lead after tallying the game’s first seven points, Harris kept the Blue Devils at bay whenever they threatened to grab hold of the momentum. He scored timely baskets on jump shots, post-ups and drives, showing off his full arsenal of skills. After it was over, Harris was as diplomatic as ever, admitting this was the finest showing of his college career only when forced to by a reporter’s question.
“I was just really focused and trying to win the game,” he said. “Fortunate enough, I was able to make a few baskets.”
His teammates and coaches boasted for him, though.
“When Joe gets that look in his eye that he’s not gonna be denied, he’s hard to stop because of his strength and size,” Bennett said. “We saw this coming. I don’t know if I saw 36 and seven [rebounds] coming.”
The only other remaining player from Bennett’s initial recruiting class at Virginia, forward Akil Mitchell, aided Harris’s cause with 19 points and 12 rebounds. With Duke senior Ryan Kelly still out with a foot injury, Mitchell and a steady array of double teams were pivotal in turning ACC player of the year candidate Mason Plumlee (10 points on just five shots in 40 minutes) into a non-factor on a night when the Cavaliers were physically tougher and outrebounded the bigger Blue Devils (24-4, 11-4).
Senior Seth Curry led Duke with 28 points, much of it coming in the final four minutes of the game when the Blue Devils attempted to mount a furious comeback. But Harris and Mitchell combined to hit 19 of their 22 free throws, refusing to allow another opportunity to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee to slip away.
The anticipation for Thursday night’s game was palpable even as the two teams warmed up, with Virginia’s student section completely full more than 30 minutes before tip-off. Backed by several thunderous roars from the first sellout crowd of the season, the Cavaliers’ first win over the Blue Devils since Feb. 1, 2007 began about as well as Bennett could have imagined. They entered halftime up, 28-23.
Duke opened the second half with a three-pointer by Curry, but it wasn’t long before the Cavaliers went on a quick 12-2 spurt, getting eight straight points off free throws. Two were the result of a technical foul called on Blue Devils guard Rasheed Sulaimon. Krzyzewski, who complained about a lack of security for his team when Virginia’s fans rushed the floor during his postgame news conference, spent an entire media timeout chewing out official Roger Ayers on the sideline about the call.
But by that point, the Cavaliers’ lead had grown to 12 again, and the orange-and-blue-clad faithful couldn’t have been happier. So even after the public address announcer told them with less than a minute remaining that they shouldn’t rush the court, Cavaliers fans did so when the game ended anyway, chanting “U-Va.” as their team stood on the scorer’s table, taking in the scene from a victory this campus hadn’t witnessed in more than a decade.
“I’m going to remember this forever,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said, his voice hoarse from yelling.