DURHAM, N.C. — Virginia forward Akil Mitchell heard the “air ball” chants and finally saw a chance for atonement. Frustrated that poor free throw shooting forced him to the bench on offense in crunch time, he re-entered Monday’s game at No. 23 Duke with 13.5 seconds left to run a play the Cavaliers use every day in practice.
Senior Joe Harris hit a three-pointer off it to start the second half and Virginia Coach Tony Bennett was confident it would work again. He told his team before leaving the huddle, “We’re gonna get one here.”
But once the ball cycled to Mitchell, and Harris came open off a screen near the corner, the Cavaliers’ plan went awry when Duke’s Amile Jefferson read the play perfectly, deflecting Mitchell’s pass.
Harris forced a loose ball in the ensuing scramble and even got off a desperation heave from inside the paint, only to watch it bounce harmlessly off the rim and back to Jefferson (10 points, 15 rebounds). With that, Duke made two free throws to secure a tense 69-65 victory on a night when the Cavaliers nearly silenced a capacity crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a stirring comeback.
The winning points came on a three-pointer from the corner by Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon (game-high 21 points) that bounced off the far side of the rim and back through the hoop with 18.8 seconds remaining. The shot, off an offensive rebound by Jefferson, came just one possession after Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon delivered the Cavaliers their first lead of the game from the free throw line with just 36.5 seconds left.
“That thing was up on the rim, bounced and just hung there,” Bennett said. “It’s soft rims at Duke and that paid off for them this time.”
The Cavaliers (12-5 overall, 3-1 ACC) appeared headed for a much less exciting road loss after Duke’s Quinn Cook (DeMatha) scored seven straight points to give the Blue Devils (13-4, 2-2) a double-digit lead with less than four minutes to go. The sequence came after Mitchell was fouled on a two-handed dunk and missed badly on two free throws, including one that didn’t touch the rim, with a chance to cut Duke’s lead to three points.
“Obviously there’s a lot on my mind right now,” Mitchell said. “They knew what they were doing. Kept sending me to the line. Nothing easy.”
But Virginia, which has lost 16 consecutive games at Duke dating from 1995, proved resilient.
Sophomore Justin Anderson ignited a 13-1 run with a three-pointer and an acrobatic tip in that resulted in a three-point play. A lay-in by Harris off a steal and four straight free throws by Brogdon (team-high 17 points) then gave Virginia the lead for all of 17 seconds.
The Cavaliers hadn’t trailed in their three previous ACC contests this year, but fell behind 8-0 early Monday and faced a 36-28 deficit at halftime.
“In the locker room, the consensus was we’re gonna make a run. We’re gonna come back,” Brogdon said. “It’s just about finishing the game once we get back.”
The postgame scene was emotional for both sides. On the heels of a 72-59 loss at Clemson this past weekend, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted the death of his older brother on Dec. 26 had been weighing on him and that “I haven’t been at my best,” as Duke struggled in recent weeks.
Mitchell, meanwhile, sat slumped in a corner of the visitor’s locker room pondering his 1-for-5 showing at the free throw line. After making 69.3 percent of his foul shots last season, he has missed 20 of his past 27 attempts. It overshadowed the job he did covering Duke’s freshman star Jabari Parker, who was limited to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting.
Bennett suggested his captain might need to speak with the team’s sports psychologist. He then sounded like one himself as he put Monday’s near-comeback in perspective.
“Had you won, it wouldn’t have made your season and had you lost, it wouldn’t have broke your season, and that’s where it’s at,” Bennett said.