Had you told him that Virginia still would lose, 61-58 despite the low number of possessions for each team, he might have been at least a little surprised.
The Cavaliers (14-2, 1-1 ACC) don’t have an obscene amount of firepower. Heck, on many nights they struggle to possess an ordinary amount of firepower. They rely on their defense to keep them in contention most games. So as far as they’re concerned, the fewer possessions, the better.
But for about the first 10 minutes of the second half, Virginia’s defense revealed some flaws that proved to be their undoing against the Blue Devils (14-2, 2-0). Duke made 11 of its first 14 shots (78.6 percent) after the intermission Thursday, and as Bennett said: “You’re not going beat most teams if you allow them to shoot at that clip. You’ve got to make them shoot a little more contested shots.”
The foundation of the problem was that senior center Assane Sene struggled to defend Duke forward Mason Plumlee when the Blue Devils began feeding Plumlee the ball early and often to start the second half. Plumlee scored six of Duke’s first 10 points after the break. His hook shot over Sene with just more than 16 minutes to play provided the Blue Devils their first lead of the second half.
Duke fed the ball to Plumlee two possessions later, and fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott immediately shifted across the lane to provide Sene with help defense. With Scott and Sene double-teaming Plumlee, another Virginia defender slid down to defend Duke forward Ryan Kelly, whom Scott had been responsible for guarding. That left Duke guard Seth Curry unattended on the perimeter.
Plumlee swung the ball to Curry, who made a three-pointer to give the Blue Devils a three-point lead with 14 minutes 42 seconds remaining in the game. The score never would be tied again the rest of the night.
“At the start of the second half . . . we had too many defensive breakdowns,” Bennett said. Plumlee “was assertive. He made some plays. But I thought we got a little outside of ourselves in terms of gambling or missing a rotation or just not being sound. He exploited that.”
When Plumlee – who finished with a team-high 12 points – scored and was fouled by freshman forward Darion Atkins on a layup with 9:34 to play, he made the ensuing free throw to put Duke up by nine. To that point in the second half, the Blue Devils had missed only three shots from the field.
This against a Virginia defense that entered the night allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from the field.
But the Cavaliers soon tightened up. Duke made 3 of 9 shots (33.3 percent) the rest of the way and largely allowed Virginia to remain in contention by failing to make free throws. The Blue Devils made 3 of 9 free throws in the second half and just 8 of 19 (42.1 percent) on the night. For all his effectiveness in Duke’s half-court offense, Plumlee was a disaster at the charity stripe. He made 2 of 10 free throws Thursday.
And so with roughly 13 seconds left on the game clock, Virginia got the ball back with a chance to tie the game. Scott attempted a three-pointer from the corner that bounced off the side of the backboard. The ball ricocheted to junior guard Jontel Evans, but his three-point attempt from the wing fell errant, as well.
Of course, it was Plumlee who snared the defensive rebound as the final horn sounded.
“We walk a fine line,” Bennett said. “We know we’ve got to try to get as much offensive production as possible, but if we want to be as good as we can, we can’t have those little lulls on the defensive end, which I feel like is in our control. Offense can kind of ebb and flow. But defensively, that can’t happen.”
Game story: Cavs can’t get over the hump, lose to Virginia
Cavs Journal: Three up, three down
Box score: Duke 61, Virginia 58