Maybe De’Andre Hunter bobbled the ball. Maybe Jay Huff’s cross-court pass hung in the air for a few seconds too long.
Whatever it was that made Hunter’s catch-and-shoot motion a second or two longer than normal led to the most physically impressive play of Saturday’s heavyweight rematch between No. 3 Virginia and No. 2 Duke.
Late in the second half, with Duke leading by seven, freshman Zion Williamson was in the paint near the free throw line when Hunter got his hands on the pass. By the time Hunter left his feet to take what looked like a wide-open 3-pointer, Williamson closed the distance and — still a good four feet from Hunter — leapt impossibly high for a man who weighs almost 300 pounds, got his right hand on the ball and swatted it five rows into the stands.
“He can close and do things athletically that only a couple [players] can,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “I think there’s probably two people in the world who can make that play, and they were both in our gym tonight.”
Williamson — one of two Duke players vying to be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft — flashed late Saturday with a powerful dunk that shook John Paul Jones Arena to its very core and an impressive drive and finish to squelch a Virginia run.
To Virginia’s credit, though, the only other time this season that Williamson had to work as hard to get his points may have been Duke’s November loss to Gonzaga, which many believe has the best frontcourt in the nation.
It wasn’t Williamson who played the most pivotal role in Duke’s second win over the Cavaliers this season, but when a team has three potential first-round draft picks in its starting five, opponents have to pick their poison every night. And there may not be a team in the country that can beat the Blue Devils when they go 13-for-21 from 3-point range.
“I don’t think it’s anything I did, but my players felt it,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Really good players sometimes make coaches look really good and really smart.”
RJ Barrett — Duke’s other potential No. 1 overall pick — didn’t miss a 3-pointer until his sixth attempt, and in the blink of an eye, Virginia found itself staring at a 14-point deficit.
“I think we are a team that doesn’t get phased very easily,” Virginia’s Kyle Guy said. “Obviously when they hit five in a row and seven out of eight, it’s hard because it’s an uphill battle all game.”
Barrett and yet another freshman phenom, Cam Reddish, combined for 11 3-pointers, but that can be chalked up to great players showing up in a big game. Saturday’s clash in Charlottesville was only the fourth time Duke and Virginia met as top-5 teams.
Much more disturbing than the Cavaliers’ inability to defend on the perimeter are what can no longer be called uncharacteristic mistakes. For the third straight game, Virginia committed double-digit turnovers. On Jan. 29, UVa turned the ball over a season-high 16 times in an overtime win at N.C. State. A 14-turnover performance against Miami followed, and the Cavaliers matched that number on Saturday.
“[Duke] was quicker to the ball. They are terrific athletes, strong-handed, they snatched some out of our hands, some loose turnovers that led to the breakaways and then we had a couple careless ones here and there,” Bennett said. “You can’t beat a team like Duke, especially when they are shooting at that clip, whether we were too long in the gaps or not, without playing a really sounder, cleaner game.”
While Virginia ultimately won the offensive rebounding battle, 14-8, Duke controlled the offensive glass late, which led to the Blue Devils’ 14-9 advantage in second-chance points and their 17-0 advantage in fast-break points.
“We had a couple on turnovers and long rebounds,” Krzyzewski said. “Look, it’s a lot better to get points against [Virginia] when they’re not set up. That helped us tremendously.”
Virginia has played two of its worst games of the season against a team it’s likely to see at least once more in the ACC Tournament and possibly again in the latter rounds of the NCAA Tournament. It also doesn’t help that the head injury Mamadi Diakite suffered Saturday in a collision with Hunter could leave the Cavaliers short a man in the frontcourt rotation, and nobody really knows how healthy Ty Jerome’s back is.
The Wahoos (20-2, 8-2 ACC) don’t have time to lick their wounds, though. They’re back on the road Monday to face a surging North Carolina team, which survived a surprisingly challenging game Saturday against Miami and currently shares first place in the ACC with Duke.
The Tar Heels (19-4, 9-1 ACC) have won seven straight, including a 113-96 decision over N.C. State.
UNC is averaging 88.3 points a game and has three players scoring at least 15 points a night. Freshman guard Coby White leads the way with 15.9 points a game, followed by 6-foot-9 Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson with 15.8 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Luke Maye is just missing averaging a double-double with 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds a game, and freshman Nassir Little is chipping in with 10.3 points and 4.7 rebounds a night.
Bennett said his team was in for a tough film session on Sunday.
“I think there’s some stuff that we’ll need to see and will be important in the Carolina game,” Bennett said. “Things that will have to be fixed with the way they rebound offensively and the way they pressure.”
Before Duke and UVa took the court at JPJ, CBS aired its first preliminary ranking show as part of the buildup to March Madness and both teams were named No. 1 seeds. Things didn’t go the Cavaliers’ way on Saturday’s grand stage, but if everything pans out the way many believe it will, the Wahoos can look forward to a rematch on much larger platforms.
Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.