Focused, emotional Blue Devils hold off Cavaliers 69-65

Jan. 14, 2014 @ 01:00 AM

Rasheed Sulaimon scored 21 points off the bench and Amile Jefferson recorded his first double-double as a determined Duke team held off Virginia 69-65 on Monday.

Duke (13-4, 2-2), which slid from No. 16 to 23 in Monday’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, avoided dropping three of four games to start ACC play. The win was the Blue Devils’ 16th straight over Virginia (12-5, 3-1) at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“I thought we played with so much heart tonight,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzweski. “I thought it was our best game as far as that goes.”

Jefferson didn’t miss a field goal, tallying 10 points and his 15 rebounds accounted for nearly half of Duke’s total number of boards. The sophomore was involved in each of the major sequences in the final stages of the game, rebounding and dishing to Sulaimon for the go-ahead 3-pointer with 18.8 seconds left before intercepting a Cavalier pass intended for sharpshooter Joe Harris.

Jefferson then knocked down both of his free throws with 6.8 seconds remaining to seal the game.

“Amile is an animal,” said Krzyzweski. “What a great game. That was one of the great sequences I’ve seen. The basketball gods are good to somebody who does that.”

Jefferson said the win was a team effort. Eleven Blue Devils saw action as Krzyzweski employed a five-in, five-out substitution method before blending the starters and reserves more in the second half.

Sulaimon, Josh Hairston, Marshall Plumlee, Tyler Thornton, and Andre Dawkins each checked in for Duke at the first TV timeout of the opening half.

“We knew we were going to play a lot of players and give everybody a chance,” said Jefferson. “Tonight was us starting to fight as Duke, as one unit. We need everybody. Tonight was a team win.”

Sulaimon led the charge off the bench, after earning consecutive starts against Georgia Tech and Clemson. The sophomore guard followed up two points in 12 minutes of work in Saturday’s loss at Clemson with a season high in points on Monday, logging 24 minutes.

Sulaimon accounted for four of Duke’s 10 made 3-pointers. The go-ahead 3 drew iron with the ball taking a high bounce before falling through the net.

“He played with heart,” Jefferson said of Sulaimon. “He played with determination and fight tonight. That last 3 — that’s as big of a shot as you can ask for — from anyone on any level. That was a winning shot. That was a winning play. That was a Duke play.”

It was a winning play in what Sulaimon described as a must-win game.

“It was a pretty emotional game, for me personally, but also for this team,” said Sulaimon. “It was a must win. We have to protect Cameron and you could tell from our crowd too, they were behind us. It was very emotional.”

The game was stirring for Krzyzweski too. He took the blame for Duke’s inconsistent play as of late, noting that he had been “knocked back” by the passing of his brother on Dec. 26 of last year.

“We’ll be immune to praise or criticism because we’ll be our own self critics,” said Krzyzweski. “We’re just going to play. For the last two weeks, that’s on me.”

The Blue Devils led comfortably through much of the game and shot 46.7 from the field against a Virginia team than entered the contest ranked third in the nation in scoring defense.

But the Cavaliers charged late, taking their first lead with 36.5 seconds remaining on a pair of Malcolm Brogdon free throws.

Brogdon led the Cavs with 17 points and leading scorer Harris finished with 15.

Rodney Hood added 14 points for Duke, which returns to action Saturday at home against N.C. State.

Blue Devils freshman phenom Jabari Parker, who tallied eight points, said the win over Virginia could be the turning point of the season for his squad.

“We came prepared,” said Parker. “We came ready to play. We knew that we needed this game. This was a breaking point. This was a great win for us.”

Contact the writer @kholtzman@hendersondispatch.com.