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Duke slips past Virginia / January 16, 2014
By Tucker McLaughlin Jr.

News & Record

Two Duke players emerged as major difference makers when the Blue Devils, suddenly relegated to very unusual status as Top 25 backbenchers, escaped with a narrow win over Virginia in an ACC headliner Monday night.

It’s no secret that Rasheed Sulaimon had barely made any kind of impression earlier this season for the Blue Devils, now 13-4 overall and still a mediocre 2-2 in ACC play after the 69-65 win over Virginia.

Sulaimon emerged as the toast of Blue Devil nation after shredding Virginia for 21 points on seven-of-11 shooting, including four of five accuracy from three-point range. Overall, the Blue Devils did real damage from beyond the arc, sinking 10-of-22 three-pointers.

Nothing hurt Virginia more than the three-pointer Sulaimon launched - after a well-executed assist from Amile Jefferson - and dropped in with 22 ticks left on the Cameron Indoor Stadium clocked. Duke led, 67-65, and survived to stay relevant in the ACC men’s basketball race.

Had Duke dropped to 1-3 - and that was a real possibility, given that the Blue Devils almost squandered this game - the Blue Devils likely would have been in real trouble in the regular season title hunt.

Ironically, Sulaimon, who had just one 20-point game this season and just four in his career at Duke before drilling the Cavaliers, seemed to be missing in action earlier this season in Durham. The lowest point came against Gardner-Webb, when Sulaimon played just five minutes, going 0-for-2 against Gardner-Webb, while missing his lone 3-point attempt.

It was a different deal for the Houston, Texas product Monday night.

Assessing the eventual game-winning trey, Sulaimon said, “I made myself available, and [Amile Jefferson] was looking for me. He trusted me, he passed it to me, and I shot it with confidence.”

“We needed [this win] bad. Regardless of two losses that we should’ve won, this was our home court as well and it was a must-win, protecting our home court and then getting back into the ACC race. We’ve been planning since we got back from Clemson. We knew it was going to be a fight, and Virginia, they’re a great team. We fought and that’s why we won.”

“I’ve been practicing well, and this game really helped my confidence. But it’s not about me - it’s about this team, and I think our team’s confidence got a lot better with this win tonight as well.”

“Every game in the ACC, especially with the two losses that we have, we know that we have to come out each and every night or else we can take a loss. We knew that Virginia was a great team coming in – they’re 3-0 and beat the three opponents that they played by a big margin of victory. We knew it was going to be a fight, and we knew we had to get this win.”

“I’d prefer a blowout but a win’s a win. No matter how we get it, we just needed it. We showed great character tonight and great fight, and we dug it out despite their run late in the game,” said Sulaimon.

Sulaimon also respected the lessons he had received from the coaching staff, especially about the proper mindset on offense.

“I was just trying to be aggressive. Coach told me to trust him, be aggressive, and look for my shots. That’s what I was trying to do, just let the last game [vs. Clemson] go, and just approach this game as a new game. And that’s what I did,” said Sulaimon.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett could only rue the fateful changes of fortune for his Cavaliers, after U.Va. had seized a one-point edge with 38 seconds remaining.

“There was an airball before that and again Jefferson got the rebound. When it’s an airball, it is sometimes hard because it hits the rim and you are trying to block them. There is an airball and we had our four guard lineup in and he got the offensive rebound. That is where Joe said that he got it on him and that’s what we got him to miss. Boy, if we could have grabbed that one and then been in a different position. We scrambled back and Rasheed hit that tough one. I was with him all summer and I said why did you have to do that to us? That thing was up on the rim, then bounced and just hung there. There are soft rims at Duke and that paid off for them this time,” said Bennett.

Jefferson, meanwhile, gave Duke more of a presence in the paint, with some aggressive, timely play. Duke can certainly use this kind of performance - 15 boards, ten points, two assists, one block and two steals, along with four-for-four field goal shooting - as everybody starts to get serious about NCAA tournament preparations.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, said, “Amile [Jefferson] was an animal. What a great game. The last few seconds (at the end) just willed us to win. That was one of the greatest sequences that I’ve seen. The basketball gods are good to somebody that does that.”

And, of course, Jefferson sank two very important free throws with four seconds left to finally seal Duke’s win.

Jefferson broke down the game-winning play, and his role at a critical moment for Duke this season.

“I got the rebound on the baseline, and I was scared that I was going to step out of bounds, so I actually jumped in the air and [Rasheed Sulaimon] was the first person I saw. He had a good look. Somebody was running out at him, but he got a good shot off. His feet were set and it dropped, so I was really happy.”

“We’ve got to protect our home. This is our home. When you walk out that door, you see there’s white tape down. And that’s us saying that when we cross that line right there, we’re going to be Duke. Everyone played tonight and everyone contributed tonight. It was a team win and we’ve just got to build from there.”

“We needed [this win]. This game was our season. This game is going to mark where we started and where we turned around and we started playing for each other and started playing together and as one. It was a pivotal game for us, and we’ve just got to build on it,” said Jefferson.

It’ll be interesting moving forward to see how Jefferson contributes. The 6-9 sophonmore came in shooting a team-high 64.1 percent from the field, and he had been building confidence. Before the Virginia game, Jefferson had been averaging 6.8 ppg and 8.5 rebounds per game over the previous eight games.

But there are questions: can Jefferson sustain this level of performance as the heart of the ACC season arrives? Jefferson played 28 minutes against Virginia.

Previously, Jefferson got 27 minutes at Clemson and 26 against Georgia Tech. It’ll be interesting moving forward to see how Jefferson progresses.

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