Moments after Duke's 69-65 victory over Virginia Monday night, Cavalier coach Tony Bennett met with the press.
The young coach seemed to be very upbeat, despite the loss, as he discussed how close his Cavs came to knocking off No. 23 Duke in Cameron. He focused on his own team's mistakes, but was gracious to Amile Jefferson for his two-game winning plays (his rebound of Rodney Hood's airball with Duke down one and his deflection of the pass to Joe Harris with Duke up two) -- although not by name (Bennett wasn't sure who made the two plays).
The Virginia coach summed up the game with the message he gave his players:
"My line to them was: had we won, it wouldn't have made our season, and had we lost, it wouldn't break our season."
I think he was right … for his team.
But I'm not sure the same message applied to Duke.
Not that Monday's victory makes the Blue Devil season, but a loss Monday night - especially the way it was about to happen - could have very well broken Duke's year.
The way the game was winding down - with Duke on the verge of blowing an 11-point lead in the final three and a half minutes - had me thinking of the last time Virginia won a game in Cameron.
Flash back to Jan. 14, 1995 - almost exactly 19 years ago.
Duke came into its home game with Virginia reeling after the loss of head coach Mike Krzyzewski with back problems. The Devils had started the season very strong, climbing to as high as No. 6 in the national rankings. The team was still 9-3 when Krzyzewski was sidelined.
But Duke was on a three-game losing streak (two of the losses on the road) when Virginia came to town. The Cavs, led by the All-ACC tandem of guard Harold Deane and senior power forward Junior Burrough, had been ranked earlier, but were unranked when they visited Cameron. Still, it was a very good team - one that would win 25 games and reach the NCAA Elite Eight in March.
That Saturday afternoon, Duke opened on fire. Sophomore Jeff Capel was spectacular (he would finished with 28 points) and senior big man Erik Meek had the best game of his career (15 points and 12 rebounds). The Blue Devils dominated the first half, going to the locker room with a 40-19 lead. The margin stretched to 22 in the early moments of the second half.
Then Virginia started to come back. Deane and Burroughs were big guns, but so was guard Cory Alexander, who had played at Durham's Jordan High School.
Virginia tied the game at 71 at the end of intermission and won 91-88 in double overtime.
It was the greatest comeback in ACC basketball history (at least in terms of the largest deficit overcome).
And it destroyed whatever chance the 1995 Blue Devils had of salvaging that season.
Duke's losing streak would stretch to six straight and to nine of 10. There would be one more moment of possible redemption against No. 2 UNC in Cameron, but another double overtime loss spoiled that game too. The Devils finished 13-18 - 4-15 without Krzyzewski.
Now, I don't think it turn out quite as bad as that if Duke had suffered another monumental collapse Monday night, but I find it hard to believe that the Devils could have recovered to post the kind of season that Duke fans have come to expect from Krzyzewski's teams. This was a very fragile Duke team after suffering two bitter losses in three ACC games. In both cases, Duke folded in the final 10 minutes.
Could this team have survived another - and a greater - late collapse.
Step back and look at the game for a moment.
For 36½ minutes, Duke played a an impressive game against a team that came to town playing very, very well - maybe the best in the ACC over the last 10 days. Certainly Leonard Hamilton thought so. Over the last month of the season, his Florida State Seminoles have played exceptionally well - except for a 62-50 loss to Virginia in Tallahassee.
When I asked him about that game Monday morning, Hamilton said that "Virginia played an outstanding basketball game … they put us in a position where we turned the ball over. In our 38 first-half possessions we had 13 turnovers and 12 contested shots."
Virginia did struggle earlier this year, but once ACC play started, they have been dominant - 3-0 with lopsided road wins at Florida State and N.C. State.
Duke controlled the greater part of the game with some excellent pressure defense and some timely offensive play. On a night when super freshman Jabari Parker struggled and star soph Rodney Hood was largely off-target, sophomores Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon stepped up and were superb.
The most striking factor of the Duke performance was Krzyzewski deciding to platoon two different five-man lineups through most of the first half and early in the second. Asked about the tactic afterwards, he explained that he thought that his team had gotten tired in recent games, which may explain the late collapses against Clemson and Notre Dame (Duke also slumped late in losses to Arizona and Kansas).
"I'm not saying we will platoon again, but we will use more players," Krzyzewski said.
A couple of things about the two platoons struck me. The first was the fact that freshman Matt Jones started with the four regulars - Parker, Hood, Jefferson and Quinn Cook.
Does that mean he's ahead of senior Tyler Thornton and Sulaimon, who had been alternating as starters in that spot?
Or was it a subtle tweak by Krzyzewski to balance his two platoons?
Jones is an excellent defender who doesn't need to score much with Parker and Hood on the floor. On the other hand, adding Sulaimon to the second team gave that team two scoring threats (along with Andre Dawkins), plus a real point guard in Thornton.
Just think for a moment how difficult it would have been for a true second team - with Marshall Plumlee, Josh Hairston, Thornton, Jones and Dawkins to score (Virginia would have been all over Dawkins - as they were anyway). Adding Suliamon to the second-team mix changed that.
Duke was up 5-0 when the second platoon entered the game .. and up 10-2 when the first team came back (although it should be counted as 10-4 because Mike Tobey made two free throws during the line change).
It was 12-10 when the second platoon returned - this time with freshman Semi Ojeleye replacing Hairston. They went on a 5-0 run to stretch the lead to 17-10.
That led to the second thing about the platooning that was interesting - the way Krzyzewski tweaked the two lineups. When the starters returned at 17-10, Krzyzewski kept Sulaimon on the floor (in place of Jones) and he helped spark another 8-2 run that gave Duke its first 13-point lead.
At halftime, Duke led 36-18. The starters had played more minutes (63 of 100) and scored 21 of the 36 points. Still, 37 minutes and 15 points off the bench was significant - and they did it without a defensive dropoff.
The two-platoon action continued in the first part of the second half as Duke maintained its lead, peaking at 13 points on a couple of occasions. It was still 11 when Quinn Cook hit two free throws to make it 63-52 with 3:45 to play.
That's when Duke fell apart.
Virginia scored 11 points on four possessions - one 3-pointer, two three-point plays and a steal and layup by Joe Harris - to tie the game at 63. During that stretch, Cook missed the first shot of a one-and-one, Sulaimon, trapped near midcourt, turned the ball over (the Harris steal and layup) and Parker missed a desperation 3-point try as the shot clock was running down.
After Sulaimon hit just one of two free throws at the 56 second mark, Virginia took its first lead of the game when Malcolm Brogdon hit two free throws with 38 second left.
That's the moment when I thought Duke's season was in jeopardy. The collapse - losing an 11-point lead in under four minutes - would not quite match the 1995 Virginia loss, but it would be close. It would be more like Maryland's 2001 Final Four team losing a 10-point lead in the final 55 seconds to Duke - a loss that spun the Terps into a streak of five losses in six games.
Of course, Duke didn't lose Monday night, thanks to Jefferson and Sulaimon, who made the winning plays in the final 38 seconds. The slender Jefferson pulled down his 14th rebound of the game when Hood lost control of the ball trying to hit a go-ahead shot and delivered an airball instead. Jefferson not only grabbed the rebound in traffic, he had the presence of mind to relocate to Sulaimon in the corner for what proved to be the game-winning 3-pointer.
One note: If you get a chance to watch a replay of that sequence, look for Jefferson as Sulaimon's 3 bounces off the rim before it drops through. That was a lucky bounce, but as I said, watch Jefferson - if the ball had bounced off, he win perfect position to rebound it and tip it in.
Virginia still had time to tie or win the game. When Bennett called timeout with 13 seconds left, he set up the same play that opened the second half - freshman London Perrantes drove the right baseline, then threw a crosscourt pass to Joe Harris coming off a screen … Harris knocked in the 3-pointer.
Krzyzewski anticipated a play for Harris
"If I had Harris, I'd try to get him the ball," he said.
On the replay of the next sequence, watch as senior Akil Mitchell tries to make the crosscourt pass to Harris, who breaks partially free with Thornton on his hip. But the ball never gets to him. The inspired Jefferson tips away the pass. He can't hold it and Harris is able to get off a wild shot in traffic that misses. Jefferson rebounds (his career best 15th rebound) and with four seconds left, the 40 percent free throw shooter improbably makes both to clinch the win.
"We needed [this win]," Jefferson said. "This game was our season. This game is going to mark where we started and where we turned around and we started playing for each other and started playing together and as one. It was a pivotal game for us, and we've just got to build on it."
That feeling was evident by the wild celebration after the game. As Krzyzewski tried to run off the court in the narrow exit between press row and the pep band, he was forced to stop and catch assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski, who ran and jumped into K's arms - just as he famously did 16 years ago at the end of his senior day game against North Carolina.
That display of emotion made me think about the impact of the Virginia game.
If Duke had simply continued for the final three and a half minutes as it had played the first 36 and a half and won the game by 10 points or so, it would have been a useful victory - a stepping stone for Coach K to build on going forward.
But the way it did end - with Duke pulling out the victory in dramatic fashion after flirting with disaster - will I believe help the team more than a routine, solid win would have done.
Don't get me wrong. Duke still has issues. It would be nice to get Parker back in his offensive groove. We have to see if Sulaimon and Jefferson can build on their outstanding performances. We have to see how Krzyzewski will use his bench going forward.
When Jefferson suggested "this game is going to mark where we started and where we turned around" - that's exactly what I was thinking. If Duke uses this game to return to top 10 status in the coming weeks, we'll look back on Krzyzewski's platoon tactics like we now remember the Jordan Davidson start against Wake Forest in 2005 or the move of Jon Scheyer to point guard in 2009.
We'll have to see what happens Saturday, when N.C. State visits Cameron. The Wolfpack have played very well in Durham under coach Mark Gottfried. True, N.C. State hasn't won in Durham since 1995 (four days after the collapse to Virginia that year), but Gottfried's first two State teams have given Duke fits - in fact, Duke's second-half rally in 2012 (down 20 with just over 10 minutes left) is another of the great comebacks in ACC history.
This Wolfpack team appears to be reeling with three losses in the last five games, but it's hard to figure. N.C. State went to Tennessee and beat the Vols fairly easily two weeks before Tennessee blasted Virginia by 35. Then Virginia went to Raleigh and beat State by 31 points - the worse loss for the Pack in their current arena. And keep in mind, that days after Duke lost at Notre Dame, the Pack traveled to South Bend and knocked off Mike Brey's team.
Don't count on anything Saturday - but a strong showing by the Devils would be a good sign that Duke is on the way back and Monday's game was more than a lucky fluke.
It's impossible to talk about the Virginia win without referencing Krzyzewski's postgame press appearance.
The Hall of Fame coach startled the assembled media with his emotional opening.
"We haven't been at our best since the start of conference and I haven't been at my best since Christmas," he said. "That's my responsibility. I've been knocked back … Sometimes things occur that are human and 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 [together] as much as we should. Today we were. It was a heck of a win for our basketball team."
A few reporters wondered what Krzyzewski was talking about. Most of us understood he was referencing the death of his older brother on Dec. 26. Bill Krzyzewski, 71, was a captain in the Chicago Fire Department. The two brothers were very close. Clearly, Bill's death hit the Duke coach hard.
"I got knocked back right after Christmas and I've been knocked back for a couple of weeks," Krzyzewski said. "It's on me, not on my team. What we will be doing, that will be on all of us. Today was on all of us, win or lose. We're all in today. That's the way it is. We're human beings and human beings have setbacks."
Krzyzewski suggested that he has not been in top form as a coach in the wake of his brother's death.
"I've had to get more observant with my team," he said. "I take full responsibility for those first three [ACC] games. Everything is on me. Part of that is not seeing some things."
Krzyzewski made it clear that he's ready to move forward and to return his focus to his team.
That's got to be great news for Duke basketball.