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Cavs Lead Duke from Start to Finish

Virginia guard Joe Harris scored a career-high 36 points en route to Virginia toppling No. 3 Duke 73-68 at John Paul Jones Arena. (Photo: Peter Casey/USA TODAY Sports)

Thursday night, the No. 3 Duke Blue Devils came to town boasting a 24-3 record, the ACC Player of the Year favorite in senior center Mason Plumlee, a presumed lock on a No. 1 seed come tournament time, and a claim at No. 1 in the polls following Indiana’s loss to Michigan.

They left with the record blemished, Plumlee’s candidacy damaged, the lock picked, and the claim at No. 1 forfeited – at least for now.

On the 11-year anniversary of Virginia’s last win over a top-5 program – coincidentally also against a No. 3 Duke team – the Cavaliers led wire to wire, never relinquishing their lead en route to a 73-68 win at John Paul Jones Arena.

Junior swingman Joe Harris led Virginia with a career-high 36 points, the highest total by an ACC player this year, before he fouled out with less than two minutes remaining. The Chelan, Wash., native used strong drives, curl cuts, step-backs, and wily offensive rebounds to amass his points, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski heaped praise on him after the game.

“Harris was fantastic,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s just one of the best players in the country. When you have a guy playing at that level…it brings everybody up. You know you’re playing with a stud.”

But Harris’s play was not the only reason the Cavaliers (20-8, 10-5 ACC) extended their winning streak at JPJ to 16 games.

As phenomenal as Harris’s performance was, Akil Mitchell’s showing might have been more crucial to the win. The junior big from Charlotte rolled up 19 points and 12 rebounds – three on the offensive glass – and he dominated Plumlee in the paint, holding the senior to just ten points.

The team defense was strong. It would be easy to look at the stat sheet and see only that Duke guards Seth Curry and Quinn Cook combined for 50 points, but the numbers don’t quite tell the tale. For starters, Cook and Curry were the only Blue Devils to hit three-pointers all game. That’s not to mention that remaining Duke starters Plumlee, Josh Hairston, and Rasheed Sulaimon combined for more turnovers – seven – than made field goals – four – or that Virginia’s gameplan of aggressively double-teaming Plumlee every time he caught the ball worked practically to perfection.

Another huge factor in the Wahoos’ win was the crowd, which I nicknamed the #WahooZoo in my live Twitter feed during the game. I’ve been to several Virginia basketball games in my three years here, and that was, without a doubt, both the most packed and the loudest JPJ has ever been. Virginia coach Tony Bennett mentioned in his press conference that he told his players that they would have a chance to harness and feed off of the energy of the crowd, and the crowd did not disappoint. The best word to describe it would be “electric.”

The fans started the game standing, and they certainly finished that way. They were raucous when Virginia opened the game on a 7-0 run, but, to their credit, they did not lose steam when Duke inevitably began to weather the storm, or when the Cavaliers struggled with brief stretches of sloppy play. And, as expected, when the clock hit zeroes, they stormed the court to celebrate with Harris, Mitchell, and the rest of the team.

The win over a top-ranked team will undoubtedly serve as a huge boost to Virginia’s NCAA tournament aspirations. A road win against a then-underrated Wisconsin squad, a home squeaker against N.C. State, and a narrow loss at No. 2 Miami have been replaced by a buzzer-to-buzzer drubbing of one of college basketball’s traditional powers as the signature moment of the season. Before Thursday, the Cavaliers were one of ESPN “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi’s “Last Four In” and probably needed to win at least one game in the ACC tournament to secure a bid to the Big Dance. Now, barring a dramatic collapse the rest of the way, Virginia’s March Madness dreams should come true.

Duke has to make a quick turnaround to face No. 5 Miami in Durham Saturday night before closing out the regular season with a home tussle with Virginia Tech and a trip to Chapel Hill. Virginia heads to Boston College Sunday, then finishes the season at Florida State and at home against Maryland.

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