In the surging sea of blue-and-orange clad humanity that swarmed onto the John Paul Jones Arena floor after Virginia’s 73-68 win against No. 3 Duke, U.Va.’s players lived out the kind of frenzied postgame celebration that had previously only existed in their dreams.
Considering the win goes a long way toward sprucing up U.Va.’s NCAA tournament resume, Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, Jontel Evans and their teammates earned the right to soak up all of it.
Moments like the one U.Va. enjoyed Thursday night don’t often happen in Charlottesville. It had been 11 years to the day since U.Va. had beaten a top five opponent, and it was also No. 3 Duke back on Feb. 28, 2002.
“It was a special night, definitely one of my best nights since I’ve been a college student,” said Harris, who scored a career-high 36 points on 12 of 20 shooting from the floor to go along with seven rebounds before fouling out with 40 seconds left. “I’ve never experienced having somebody storm the court. I was just really excited and happy for all my teammates just to be a part of it.”
U.Va. (20-8 overall, 10-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) has beaten Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State in the same season for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
All three Research Triangle foes entered Thursday evening among the top 26 in Ratings Percentage Index projections, but the Duke win will attract plenty of attention, since the Blue Devils were first in RPI. U.Va. was 67th.
The win moved U.Va., which snapped an eight-game losing streak in games against Duke (24-4, 11-4), within a game of second-place Duke in the ACC standings.
“I told our guys before the game, I said, ‘None of the hype leading up to the game – all of the emotion –really matters, because once the ball is tipped it’s about what you’re doing, getting your game. If you play well, and you harness the energy that will be in the building, then it can be huge for you’” said U.Va. coach Tony Bennett, whose team jumped out to a 9-0 lead. “I felt like they were a little nervous before the game, but boy, the way they came out, and then the crowd got behind them was terrific.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a lot of pretty special settings, and this one ranked up there with how loud it was. That’s home court advantage. The guys fed off of it.”
After scoring 21 of his points in the second half to lead U.Va., which shot 46.2 percent from the floor, Harris was mobbed by fans clutching and tugging on his jersey as his father, Joe, looked on. Joe the elder, who is a high school boys basketball coach in Chelan, Wash., was getting to see his son play live for just the second time this season.
Mitchell, who had an ACC career-high 19 points to go along with an ACC career-high matching 12 rebounds, had to link arms with U.Va. walk-on Thomas Rogers to clear a path big enough for the two players just to make it to the locker room.
Evans, a Bethel High graduate, had the wildest postgame ride of all – on the shoulders of guys he identified simply as U.Va. football players, but couldn’t name if his life depended on it.
“Duke is the only team I hadn’t beaten since I’ve been here,” said Evans, who helped U.Va. improve its John Paul Jones Arena record to 17-1 this season, and extend its home winning streak to an arena-record 16 straight games. “To do it in my final year, it’s just a great feeling.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team shot 39.6 percent from the floor for its second-worst shooting effort of the season, wasn’t as thrilled about the postgame scene. He wasn’t happy with security not allowing his players and coaches to leave the floor before fans rushed the court.
“When we’ve lost in the last 20 years, everybody rushes the court,” Krzyzewski said. “Whatever you’re doing, you need to get the team off first. Celebrate. Have fun. Obviously, you won. That’s cool, but just get our team off the court and our coaching staff before students come on. Put yourself in a position with one of our players or coaches. I’m not saying anybody did this, but the potential is there all the time for a fan to come up to you and say, ‘Coach, you’re a…’ What do you do? What if you did something? That would be the story, right? So, we deserve that kind of protection.
“I’m always concerned about stuff like that, especially this time of year. What if that happened and we get a kid suspended, or that becomes the national story? It is not all fun and games when you’re rushing the court, especially for the team that lost. Again, congratulations to (the Cavaliers) and they should have fun and burn benches and do all that stuff. I’m all for that. They have a great school, great kids, but get us off the court.”
While Krzyzewski chose to voice his displeasure with the handling of the postgame madness, he could’ve also mentioned any number of factors involving his players’ shortcomings in the game.
While Harris had the game of his life, Duke All-ACC candidates Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee had trouble getting started. Curry finished with 28 points on 7 of 14 shooting from the floor, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range, and 10 of 12 shooting from the free throw line – but he had just five points at halftime.
Plumlee had 10 points, which was 7 1/2 points below his average. He was thoroughly outplayed by Mitchell, who helped U.Va. gain a 36-25 rebounding advantage. Duke had just three offensive rebounds, while U.Va. had nine, led by Harris' four offensive rebounds.
“I was just doing the same thing I’ve been doing all year, trying to use my quickness and my athleticism and trying to limit (Plumlee’s) post touches,” Mitchell said.
Harris, whose previous career-high was 27 points on Feb. 16 in a loss at UNC, hit big shots when U.Va. needed points.
After falling behind 18-6, Duke used a 15-4 run capped by a 3-pointer from Curry with 4:26 left in the first half to cut U.Va.’s lead to 22-21. The 3-pointer was the first successful field goal by either Curry or Plumlee, who combined to miss their first five shots from the floor and who both failed to score from either the field or the free throw line in the first nine minutes and 49 seconds.
Duke, which also got 22 points from Quinn Cook, stayed within single digits of U.Va. through the first four minutes and 50 seconds of the second half. Harris hit four consecutive free throws with 15:10 left after Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon was called for a foul and proceeded to draw a technical foul. Harris’ free throws put U.Va. up 38-26.
U.Va.’s lead grew to as many as 16 points in the second half, but Duke rallied again to trim the Cavaliers’ lead to 57-48 with 4:53 remaining. Harris, who was 2 of 5 from 3-point range and 10 of 12 from the free throw line, responded by nailing a 3-pointer with 4:34 left to push U.Va.’s lead back to double digits.
“Harris was fantastic, which we knew he would be,” said Krzyzewski, whose team entered the game leading the ACC by making 41.6 percent of its 3-pointers, but connected on just 32 percent (8 of 25) against U.Va. “He is just one of the best players in the country. He had half their points, and when you have a guy playing that well, it breaks everybody up. You know you’re playing with a stud. He was terrific.”
Duke had one final burst left in it, using an 11-3 run in the last 1 1/2 minutes behind seven points from Cook to cut U.Va.’s advantage to 71-66 with 23 seconds left. Cook and Curry both missed 3-pointers in the final six seconds to seal the game for U.Va.
Now, with its most impressive win of the season under its belt, U.Va. has to avoid a letdown in the final week-and-a-half of the regular season. It heads to Boston College and Florida State, both of which are in the bottom half of the ACC standings, before finishing the regular season March 10 at home against Maryland.
“This is a big win for us and a big win for our program, but we still have to finish out the year strong,” Harris said. “There’s no slouches in conference play. We’ve got to finish the year out on a high note and hopefully we’ll be fortunate enough to make the tournament.”Copyright © 2015, CT Now