CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - For the second time in four nights, one of Duke’s big senior scorers had difficulties in a road game.
Once again, though, the No. 5-ranked Blue Devils had little trouble dismissing an overmatched ACC opponent as they won 56-41 at Virginia on Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
Four nights earlier, Duke defeated Miami 81-71 even though an eye injury and foul trouble held guard Nolan Smith to two first-half points.
On Wednesday, forward Kyle Singler had the frustrating start. He was limited to 23 minutes because of foul trouble and scored two points, 15 below his average.
His ACC-high streak of 23 straight games of 10 or more points ended. But Duke (24-2, 11-1 ACC) easily survived Singler’s difficult night and stayed comfortably on top of the ACC standings with its fifth straight win as both teams posted season-low point totals.
Smith scored 22 points to lead the Blue Devils, but a lot of other players contributed strong performances.
Sophomore forward Ryan Kelly asserted himself in the low post and hit a 3-pointer to finish with 11 points. Mason Plumlee played a strong all-around game from his center position with nine points, nine rebounds and three assists.
Most importantly, perhaps, Duke – which was held to its season-low points total - played some of its best defense of the season. The Cavaliers shot just 28.6 percent from the field, a season-low for a Duke opponent.
Some of Virginia’s difficulties were self inflicted. The Cavaliers (12-13, 3-8) entered the game ranked 11th in the ACC in field goal percentage at .423 and missed plenty of open shots.
But Kelly and Mason Plumlee also provided an intimidating presence in the lane that forced the Cavaliers out to the perimeter and allowed the Duke guards to pressure the ball with impunity.
Virginia also is known for its defense, as Tony Bennett plays a scheme called the “Pack Line” a compact, halfcourt alignment that causes opponents to attempt difficult shots over defenders stationed near the 3-point arc.
That didn’t bother Duke much in the first half, as four Blue Devils combined for five 3-pointers to build a 34-26 halftime lead.
Smith hit a pair of 3-pointers within 90 seconds to give Duke a 16-15 lead with 9:37 left in the first half, and the Blue Devils never trailed again. Smith closed out the half with a three-point play on a fast break for 13 first-half points.
Virginia led 12-7 early after consecutive 3-pointers by Joe Harris and Mustapha Farrakhan, but shot just 10-for-30 from the field in the first half.
When the Cavaliers missed 11 of their first 12 second-half field goal attempts, Duke stretched its lead to 45-30. And the way Virginia was shooting, there was no chance of coming back.