Tougher Duke can play defense, too

DURHAM, N.C. -- Amid all of his postgame questions about rotations and adjustments and tempo, Duke coach Mike Krzyewski might have summed up the importance of the sixth-ranked Blue Devils' 61-58 victory over No. 17 Virginia on Thursday night with five little words:

“We can play defense, too.”

Maybe not great defense, not yet. Probably not even as consistently good as the Cavaliers, who entered the game allowing foes to score a mere 50.5 points per game and make only 38 percent of their shots.

But good enough to hold Virginia linchpin Mike Scott, who looked like he was en route to career night in the first half, to 3-for-9 shooting after halftime. Good enough to stymie Virginia into 29.4 percent shooting in the second half. Good enough to survive two potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final 10 seconds (and prevail despite making only a quarter of its 3-pointers and 42.1 percent of its free throws).

Good enough to prove that the Blue Devils still know how to play tough.

“It was really a terrific win for our kids because they had to fight for 40 minutes against an outstanding team,” said Krzyzewski, whose team snapped Virginia's 12-game winning streak, and has now won 44 in a row at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

There had been some budding questions about Duke’s grit, particularly because of how it was – or wasn’t – making stops.

The Blue Devils entered the game ranked an uncharacteristic second-to-last in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing foes 69.4 points per game; and dead last in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 44.3 percent.

Players had admitted those numbers smarted, especially in a program that has always prided itself on hard-nosed, floor-slapping, game-changing D.

“Part of our culture at Duke is great defense,’’ forward Miles Plumlee said. “Looking at our team, we knew our defense wasn’t where it needs to be.”

Early on, it wasn’t where it needed to be, either, as the Cavs shot 51.9 percent in the first half thanks to 16 points from Scott (who finished with 23, and who has to be a leading contender for ACC Player of the Year because of the impact he’s had on his team).

But after halftime, Miles and Mason Plumlee (12 points) buckled down on the fifth-year senior forward, trying to push him out of his comfort zone by staying on his hip.

“They were physical with him,’’ Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “… He actually got some good looks, he just missed some.”

Meanwhile, Duke started making some.

With the score knotted 38-38 with 15:47 left, Blue Devils guard Seth Curry buried a 3-pointer. Then he blocked Sammy Zeglinski’s 3-point attempt, which led to a Tyler Thornton layup – one of Duke’s first transition buckets of the game. Scott’s baseline jumper wiggled out, leading to a transition dunk by Miles Plumlee. An Austin Rivers 3-pointer eventually stretched the breakaway to 10-2 and the Blue Devils’ lead to 48-40.

“We got on a little run when we were making shots and playing good defense,’’ Devils forward Ryan Kelly said. “And when we do that, we’re really good.”

Virginia scrapped back in the final minute, though, closing to within three points after Kelly – 14-for-14 from the line last weekend at Georgia Tech – missed two free throws, and Cavalier Akil Mitchell answered with a dunk.

But after Curry missed a jumper, Scott and teammate Jontel Evans missed two potential game-tying 3-pointers as time ran out.

“You can’t complain about getting two clean looks at the rim to extend it to overtime,’’ said Bennett, whose team allowed the Devils to shoot 60.9 percent in the second half.

Although Duke, which “broke down a little bit” on defense in those final seconds, Kelly said, will probably have something to say about it once they see it on tape. Which might be a good thing, because it reinforces the fact that the Blue Devils are not a great defense, not yet.

Although they’re getting better. And tougher.

“I don’t think that game came down to that last shot,” Duke guard Rivers said. “I think that game came down to rebounds, and the big stops we made, and the defensive stops we made, and the emphasis we had on Scott in the second half.”

Said Krzyzewski: “You can play defense a variety of ways. They played it well, and I thought we played it well tonight.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Twitter: @bylinerp.