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February 28, 2013It's easy to say that, in front a frenzied and sold out crowd, junior Joe Harris had the game of his life on Thursday night. But that wouldn't do his career-high 36 points or UVa's 73-68 win over No. 3 Duke justice.
In a game where the Wahoos never trailed and at times dominated, Harris' night and the 19 points and game-high 12 rebounds put up by fellow junior Akil Mitchell were enough to push Virginia to a win.
But to beat a top-five team for the first time in its last 15 tries, UVa needed all 14,593 fans in attendance.
John Paul Jones Arena rocked, Virginia rolled, and the Blue Devils couldn't muster enough fight to take a lead, let alone win.
"Their energy was on another level that we haven't seen for awhile," said Duke's Seth Curry, who had a team-high 28 points in the loss.
Though the Cavaliers (20-8, 10-5 ACC) were the smaller team, they out rebounded the Blue Devils 36 to 25. And a team not known for its offensive-rebounding prowess dominated there, too, by a nine-to-three margin. Essentially, one team took the game to the other and that made all the difference.
In all, Virginia manhandled Duke in the paint (34 to 22 scoring advantage inside) and held the visitors from Durham to just 39.6-percent shooting from the field.
Duke (24-4, 11-4) couldn't match UVa's physicality from the beginning. And Harris had his way with freshman Rasheed Sulaimon and anyone else head coach Mike Krzyzewski tried to defend him with.
"Overall, it was a team effort tonight," Harris said. "It's not like I did it by myself. I think everybody played really sound on both ends."
But Harris couldn't avoid cracking a smile when asked again about his performance, going 12 of 20 from the field, grabbing seven boards, and posting two assists and two steals.
"To be honest, I didn't really put much though into it," he said. "I was just really focused and trying to win the game. Fortunately enough, I was able to make a few baskets.'
Coincidentally, the last time UVa had beaten a top-five team? Exactly 11 years to the day since beating Duke 87-84. Despite the moment and the pressure, the Cavaliers responded.
"I told our guys before the game that 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 do," Tony Bennett said. "But if you play well, and you harness the energy that will be in the building, then it can be huge for you."
His team responded early, getting out to an 11-2 lead by the first media timeout. Midway through the opening half, it was 18-8 before Duke made a run and cut it to 20-16. Harris, who had scored his team's last seven, hit another bucket before another mini run by the Devils in what looked to be shaping up to be a great one.
But Virginia closed the half on a 6-2 run and led 28-23 at the break. Even though Curry started the second half with an easy 3-pointer, the Wahoos were poised. They proceeded to go on a 10-0 run, aided by a Sulaimon technical foul and free throws from Harris.
Though the lead grew to as many as 16 with 6:38 left, Duke did what the Devils generally do: They made 3s and capitalized on Virginia mistakes.
When Harris fouled out with 40 seconds left, the lead was seven. Mitchell made one of two at the other end before Quinn Cook, who had a 22 points, sank one from 3-point land. But freshman Evan Nolte stepped up and hit two frees throws with 22 seconds remaining to extend the lead to 73-66.
And it was time to celebrate.
UVa held Mason Plumlee to 10 points and seven rebounds on just five shot attempts by post-trapping him and daring Duke to make an adjustment, something the Devils never could do. That certainly made the raucous crowd all the more pleased and vocal.
"I've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of pretty special settings," Bennett recalled, "and this one ranked up there with how loud it was. The guys fed off of it. Defensively, I thought it really helped them."
In a night when the national spotlight was on UVa, Harris was the game's brightest star. His 36 points were most for a Duke opponent since Al Thornton scored 37 at Duke on Feb. 4, 2006.
"I didn't realize he had that many points until someone handed me the stat sheet," Bennett said of his playmaker. "And when Joe gets that look in his eye that he's not going to be denied, he's hard to stop because of his strength and size."
As midnight brought with it the beginning of March, much will be made of this "marquee" win for UVa. And there's no doubt that losing to Old Dominion (RPI in the 300s) while beating Duke (RPI of 1) is confusing for many. But Bennett was focused more on the team he has and how it has developed.
"To go from where we were to where we are, it's about improving. And young teams usually do that," Bennett said.
It wasn't lost on Mitchell that beating Duke means nothing if the Cavaliers don't handle their business the rest of the year, with road games at Boston College and Florida State next on the schedule.
"We've kind of been talking all week about how tough Boston College is," Mitchell admitted. "It's just a weird place to play. It's tough to bring that energy. Now that we expect it, hopefully we can bring our own energy and bottle this up."