Duke had said that Jahlil Okafor would play if he was ready.
Good thing for Duke he was ready.
The Blue Devils needed all of Okafor’s 30 points to defeat Virginia Tech 91-86 in overtime. All of that career-high was needed to help Duke avoid its worst loss in over a decade.
Okafor, who missed Duke’s last game with a sprained left ankle, did miss two free throws with 21 seconds left in regulation. That left the Hokies one last chance with the score tied at 77. But the last-ditch effort drawn up by Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams for Jalen Hudson didn’t drop, sending Duke to its second overtime in three games (the first was against No. 15 North Carolina).
Okafor scored the first four points for Duke in the extra frame, making two free throws and missing two more. A Justise Winslow finish at the rim put Duke ahead 83-80 with less than two minutes left. Winslow fouled out on the Hokies’ next offensive possession, and Hudson made both free throws to pull Virginia Tech to within 83-82.
A Quinn Cook 3-pointer as the announcer was bellowing “one minute to play” proved to be the dagger, giving Duke an 86-82 lead.
Virginia Tech entered the game with a 2-12 ACC record, but no one watching Wednesday night would have been able to detect that. The Hokies are ranked 185th in statistician Ken Pomeroy’s popular rankings – since the database began in 2002, the Blue Devils have lost to just two teams ranked 100 or worse (Florida State at 135 in 2002, Wake Forest at 118 last season).
The score was tied at 75 with 70 seconds remaining in the game.
A Winslow layup with 1:03 left on the clock put Duke ahead 77-75. Off of an inbounds play at the other end, Justin Bibbs hit a quick jumper to tie the game back up at 77 with 49.9 seconds left in the game. That score would hold to the end of regulation.
An early 13-0 run for Duke made it appear like the game was headed for an early end at 15-4.
The Blue Devils’ defense acted like it was a foregone conclusion, too.
The undersized Hokies had other plans, and Virginia Tech scored on 16 of its last 18 possessions in the first half. That sent Duke into the break down 39-38.
The Hokies shot 69.6 percent from the floor in the first half – the highest shooting percentage any Duke opponent has posted in a half this season (the previous high was 66.7 percent by Miami in the second half of its blowout 90-74 win in Cameron Indoor Stadium). Some of those shots were of the incredible, how-did-that-go-in variety, fadeaways at the end of the shot clock and the like. But many of those points came from open driving lanes through Duke’s man-to-man defense. Of the Hokies’ 39 points, 20 (51.3 percent) came in the paint.
The Hokies came out and started the second half the same way they left off, nailing back-to-back open corner 3s from opposite sides of the floor to raise their shooting percentage to 72 percent. But even at that point, with that type of shooting performance, Virginia Tech was up only 45-37. Duke chipped away at the lead, and back-to-back 3s from Cook and Matt Jones – sandwiching an air-ball 3 attempt by Virginia Tech’s Justin Bibbs – gave Duke a 59-57 lead a few minutes into the second half.
As the Hokies’ shooting regressed to the mean, the Blue Devils mixed in 2-3 and 3-2 zone looks. Virginia Tech still made 3-pointers and got to the rim, just like against the man defense – but the Hokies didn’t hit everything they threw up, as they seemingly had in the first 20 minutes.
An Okafor one-handed slam in transition put the Blue Devils up 69-66 with seven minutes remaining in the game. Two minutes later, it was an Okafor follow off of a Winslow miss that put Duke back up 71-70. But a driving layup by Malik Muller – as four Blue Devils stood and watched him go from the 3-point arc to the rim – and then a Muller 3-pointer put Virginia Tech up 75-71 with 3:56 left in the game. Matt Jones finished at the rim to cut it to a 75-73 deficit heading into the final media timeout, with 3:01 left on the clock. Again it was Okafor, cleaning up, tying the game at 75-75 with less than 3 minutes left.
He did that – cleaned up – for his team consistently Wednesday night.