DURHAM – If No. 23 Duke turns its season back around and starts playing like a Final Four contender again, the Blue Devils might credit the final few seconds of Monday night’s game as a big reason why.
Duke beat Virginia, 69-65, after Rasheed Sulaimon bounced in the go-ahead 3-pointer with 18.8 seconds remaining.
Sulaimon finished with a season-high 21 points – including four threes – and Rodney Hood added 14 for the Blue Devils (13-4, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference).
Debuting their lowest ranking since the last time they fell out of the AP Top 25 in February 2007, they let an 11-point lead with 3½ minutes completely slip away before finding a way to avoid a third loss in four games.
“This has to be the game where we look back (and say) that game versus Virginia is where our guys bonded together and became a real Duke team,” said forward Amile Jefferson, who had two big rebounds in the final seconds, including one that led to Sulaimon’s final three.
Malcolm Brogdon scored 17 points and Joe Harris added 15 for the Cavaliers (12-5, 3-1), who erased that deficit by scoring 11 consecutive points, then took their first lead of the game when Brogdon’s free throws with 36.5 seconds remaining made it 65-64.
“To show that kind of heart and to climb back in and have a one-point lead was, I told the guys, ‘Don’t hang your head about that,’” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “That could have gotten away, and they scrapped and fought their way back.”
Jefferson grabbed Hood’s air ball and kicked it out to Sulaimon, who was waiting alone in the left corner.
His 3-pointer bounced high off the rim and dropped through to put Duke up, 67-65.
Akil Mitchell threw the ball away while trying to pass it to Harris, but Jefferson gave it right back to Virginia.
“It’s the action we wanted. We just didn’t execute the pass,” Bennett said. “It’s a 2-point game. I thought, ‘OK, we’re going to get one here.’ But (Jefferson) certainly had eyes on that, and it wasn’t meant to be on that one.”
Harris then missed a layup with about 10 seconds to go and Jefferson, a 41 percent free throw shooter entering the game, iced it with two free throws with 6.8 seconds remaining.
“It was just chaotic, but those are winning plays,” Jefferson said, “and (Monday), we made those plays.”
Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski said Jefferson “willed us to win. That was one of the great sequences that I’ve seen, and the basketball gods are good to somebody who does that.”
Jefferson finished with 10 points and a career-high 15 rebounds for Duke, which denied Virginia both its first victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium and first 4-0 start in ACC play since 1995.
For much of the game, the Blue Devils didn’t look like the team that had gone from preseason ACC favorite to question mark while dropping out of the top 10 to its lowest ranking in seven years.
“Win or lose, we’re in the top 10, we’re not in the top 10, we’re this, we’re that, we’re a disappointment or whatever,” Krzyzewski said. “I have a good basketball team (and) my kids played their hearts out tonight. We’re just going to keep moving on and really we’ll be immune to praise or criticism because we’ll be our own best self- critics.”
Coming off a 10-day stretch in which it dropped road games at Notre Dame and Clemson, Duke played tougher-than-usual defense and kept Virginia at bay throughout.
But its 26th straight win at Cameron didn’t come without some late-arriving tension: After Quinn Cook’s layup with 4½ minutes remaining, Duke didn’t hit another field goal until Sulaimon’s timely 3.
Cook’s free throw with 3:45 left gave the Blue Devils a 63-52 lead.
Virginia – which was at or near 50 percent shooting in its last two games, including a 31-point rout of North Carolina State two nights earlier – struggled to hit anything early against a once-wobbly Duke defense while three times falling behind by 13 points.
They held the Blue Devils well below their ACC-leading average of 82.7 points per game and tightened things up by shooting 43.8 percent in the second half.
Justin Anderson reeled off six consecutive points to start their late rally. Harris added a layup with about 2 minutes left and Brogdon followed that with a three-point play with 1:25 left that produced the first tie since the opening tip.