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Duke 69 Virginia 65

There are a lot of things that can be said and written about Duke's win over Virginia, but here's one you might not see:

Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson savor a dramatic win over Virginia
Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson savor a dramatic win over Virginia
Grant Halverson

Duke beat the Cavs with minimal contributions from Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker. And that's really good news.

Parker had eight points while Hood had 14. At the half, we think they had eight total.

Yet Duke was up 36-28.

Here's what we realized Monday night, and there's a reason it took so long to understand it (further down there's something many Duke fans, us included, underestimated).

Duke's seniors are admirable in many ways. Josh Hairston, Tyler Thornton and Andre Dawkins are all good kids, as coaches like to say. Dawkins has had his own journey, one filled with pain, depression and, this year, personal redemption.

Hairston and Thornton have been excellent role players. Thornton has bailed Duke out on numerous occasions. In his freshman year, he turned the game against Maryland around in about three plays. In his sophomore year, his two big three points helped Duke to defeat Kansas in Maui.

Hairston has always been a reliable guy, a solid defender and a program player.

He and Thornton (along with Hood) are this year's captains, and Hood was made one without ever having played a game for Duke.

Unfortunately, none of them have a real history of leadership, with the arguable exception of Thornton, who seems to lead more by example.

The only junior on the team, Quinn Cook, has become a much bigger factor, but the simple truth may be that this team's ceiling is going to be determined by Cook and the sophomore class. We're not excluding Hood from the class he belongs to but talking more about Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson.

As Cook, Sulaimon and Jefferson step up, the roles for Hood and Parker can evolve on a more natural path.

We were all blinded early by the dazzling production of Hood and Parker. Nothing has changed there except for Parker's slump as he hits top-flight competition game in and game out. They're both really, really good players.

Both guys, as Mike Krzyzewski warned us earlier, but particularly Parker, have a lot of work to do to reach their considerable potential.

Take this for example for Hood: against Notre Dame, he made what he himself acknowledged was a poor play at the end.

Against Virginia, at the end he lost control of the ball on a critical possession.

In the last minutes of Monday's game, the guys who stepped up, who made plays when they had to be made, were Cook, Sulaimon and Jefferson.

With 4:58 left, Cook went on a personal spree, hitting a three, a layup and then a pair of foul shots. Good thing: no other Blue Devil managed to score until the :55 mark when Sulaimon hit a free throw.

During the part where Duke broke down briefly, Sulaimon drew a foul and had a really bad turnover. Parker took a three with a three point lead, then fouled. Sulaimon split a pair of free throws. Hood missed a jumper. Jefferson got a rebound then made a pass to Sulaimon for his three which hit the rim, bounced high and back towards the shooter - and then dropped in.

Then Jefferson got a steal, lost it, got the ball back on a rebound and was fouled. Then the most unlikely thing happened.

With a two-point lead, Jefferson, a 40% man from the line, shot a free throw and short-armed it.

The arc was all wrong, flat and homely. Somehow it fell in and gave Duke a three point lead back.

The second, if possible, was even uglier and less likely to go in. It flew towards the basket like a wounded bird, missing the backspin you'd like to see on a foul shot.

Somehow, it landed on the metal square on the back of the rim, took an ugly hop and fell in.

A normal shot would have hit metal, bounced forward and hit the rim, and from there it would have been a complete crap shoot: left, right, back in the middle of the lane, maybe even in on a second or third bounce before falling off.

The last thing you'd reasonably expect would be for it to actually fall in.

But it did, and when it fell, so did Virginia's hopes of winning. With just seven seconds left, Virginia had to score twice and as it turned out, they couldn't manage it once.

So courtesy of Cook, Sulaimon, who led the team with 21 points, and Jefferson, who had a double-double with 10 points and a studly 15 boards, five of them offensive, led the way.

Now you can stop and consider what this team would be like if it got the tremendous effort it got from Cook, Jefferson and Sulaimon - and got outstanding offensive games from Hood and Parker.

The team won on guts, basically, and without huge games from the two stars. Parker and Hood are sure to be drafted; the pro future for Cook, Sulaimon and Jefferson is yet to be determined. Put it all together and things will be really interesting.

After the game, Coach K got more personal than he's been in a long time. He talked about - well, here:

"We haven’t been at our best since the start of conference, and I haven’t been at my best since Christmas. That’s my responsibility. We were there tonight, and we were collectively together tonight for the first time in a couple of weeks. It was my responsibility that we weren’t as much as we should have. But today we were...I’ve had to get more observant with my team. I take responsibility, full responsibility, for those first three games.

"Everything is on me. Part of it is not seeing some things. And one of the things is, at times, we would get tired because we’re not as big as some teams. So getting more guys in would help."

"We’ve been playing hard. I got knocked back right after Christmas. And I’ve been knocked back for a couple of weeks. It’s on me, not on my team. So what we have been doing, to me, doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. It’s on me. What we will be doing, that will be on all of us. Today is on all of us. Win or lose. We’re all in today. That’s the way it is.

“"Look, we’re human beings. And human beings have setbacks. Also, you don’t get a lifetime membership in the NCAA tournament, just because we’ve been in there and we’ve won it four times. And we’ve been to 11 Final Fours. You have to pay your dues every year. That’s the way it is. It’s a good club. It’s a good club, and it’s tough to get in.

"We’re starting to pay our dues better. The head coach is going to do a better job. We did a better job tonight. I can do better. I can do better for my team."

That's a lot really. He talked about the death of his brother, he admitted that it had affected how well he did his job. How could it not? You'd have to be superhuman to lose the last member of your family and just get up and perform at a world-class level. Of course it affected him.

We've gotten so used to him performing, year in and year out, at a freakishly high level, that we sometimes fail to remember that normal things affect him. It's perhaps understandable, given his immense ability and success, to assume that a loss like that can be dealt with like everything else, but it just can't be.

An iron will is a useful thing in a lot of ways, but nothing spares you from life. As Hank Williams once sang, we'll never get out of this world alive.

This should also be mentioned: unlike two or three ACC coaches we could name, he didn't push blame onto his players. He took blame for the shortcomings and gave credit to his team for the success.

We'll be interested to see how Duke approaches State this weekend. Whatever happens, though, we thought coming in that this game would be a turning point. It appears that it is, perhaps more so than we thought it could be.