But the junior point guard’s three-pointer was well short at the buzzer, sending the seventh-ranked Cavaliers to a second consecutive loss, 66-65, for the first time this season and dropping them into second place in the conference, percentage points behind Florida State.
“It’s always valuable to be in tight games, but plays have to be made, and we’ve got to keep trying to work to get the right kind of shots and keep getting stops down the stretch,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “We’ll use it for good for sure, because it was back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Again, they made more plays.”
Despite 20 points and 12 rebounds, both team highs, from Jay Huff, Virginia (15-5, 11-3) lost not only the game but also the inside track on the top seed for the ACC tournament by virtue of losing the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Seminoles (13-3, 9-2).
Sam Hauser added 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting and eight rebounds for Virginia, which gained possession for the last shot after the Blue Devils’ DJ Steward missed the front end of a one-and-one with nine seconds to play.
Matthew Hurt led Duke (10-8, 8-6) with a game-high 22 points, and Jaemyn Brakefield chipped in 11 — none more important than his final basket, which produced the decisive points.
“It’s a tough one,” Huff said. “It’s one of those that could have gone either way. We make a few plays, they don’t make a few plays, [and] it’s definitely our game. We’ve been in that situation before. It happens. I think we’ll be better off for it.”
Clark’s three-pointer from the right corner had given Virginia a 63-60 lead with 3:48 to play. Two free throws from Huff kept the advantage at three, 65-62, with 3:09 remaining before the Blue Devils went ahead by the final score on Brakefield’s layup while getting fouled with 1:59 to play.
Brakefield missed the free throw, leading to a mad scramble in the waning seconds that included a held ball with the possession arrow favoring Duke, which collected a signature win to boost its NCAA tournament hopes.
“This game, it was just a few minor tweaks here and there, and we’d have been good,” said Huff, a native of Durham, N.C., who grew up a Duke fan. “But it is what it is. It’s basketball. They played a heck of a game.”
The largest lead of the second half belonged to the Cavaliers, who went ahead 56-51 with 6:51 remaining on Clark’s traditional three-point play. Duke tied the score at 56 on Wendell Moore Jr.’s jumper followed by Steward’s three-pointer.
The early stages of the second half included Virginia taking a four-point lead, at 49-45, with 13:02 to play behind consecutive jumpers from sophomore guard Casey Morsell. The former St. John’s College High standout left the game minutes later with a gash under his right eye.
Huff aggressively inserted himself into the proceedings in the second half as well, most notably with five dunks, the fourth of which was a reverse two-hander off a lob pass from Hauser.
The basket gave Virginia a 51-49 lead that last only briefly; Henry Coleman III gathered Jeremy Roach’s missed three-point attempt, which fell well short of the rim, and scored on a layup that drew the Blue Devils even with 9:26 to play.
Apart from cardboard cutouts in place of the customary “Cameron Crazies,” also notably absent for Duke was 6-foot-9 freshman forward Jalen Johnson. The projected lottery pick announced Monday he would be opting out of the rest of the season to prepare for the NBA draft, drawing backlash from some circles but support from Coach Mike Krzyzewski and teammates.
The Blue Devils won their first game without Johnson by throttling Wake Forest, 84-60, on Wednesday and had Virginia on its heels during parts of the first half Saturday. Brakefield came off the bench to spark Duke, scoring seven in a row to open a four-point lead with 5:10 to go until halftime.
“He’s a good player,” Bennett said of Brakefield, who played on the same AAU team as Cavaliers guard Reece Beekman. “We tried to recruit him. When they lost Johnson, a guy like that knows [he’s] going to play. He played almost 30 minutes. He played with confidence, and he’s a skilled mismatch [power forward] and made a couple big plays for them.”