No. 14 Virginia walked away believing it played good defense Wednesday night.
It didn’t matter to Jayson Tatum, who was just that good in the best night of his brief college basketball career.
The Duke freshman scored 21 of his game-high 28 points in the second half, sinking six of seven 3-pointers overall, as the No. 12 Blue Devils beat Virginia 65-55 in ACC basketball at John Paul Jones Arena for their sixth consecutive win.
“When Jayson gets like that, he cannot be stopped,” Duke guard Luke Kennard said before repeating himself for emphasis. “He can not be stopped. When he is aggressive like that, when he is wanting to make plays like that, he is a dangerous player.”
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The 6-8 freshman reached his season high in points despite taking just two shots in the first half. He made one of them, a 3-pointer, naturally.
At halftime, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff implored Tatum to shoot even more. It’s something Krzyzewski’s been talking to Tatum a lot about lately.
“It’s really tough to win here,” Tatum said. “The offense we were running, guys were getting into the lane and kicking it out. Coach was telling us to shoot our bullets. He was on me about that today and I think that got me going.”
In a tough environment against one of the nation’s top defensive teams, the coaching met the talent and produced a memorable game. Tatum hit seven of his 10 shots from the field in the second half, including making five of six 3-pointers. His shooting was a big reason why the Blue Devils (21-5, 9-4 ACC) shot 57.1 percent in the final 20 minutes to erase a four-point halftime deficit.
“He was strong in all those moves,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not saying he can hit six out of seven 3s all the time. But he can shoot stronger. That’s what we are trying to teach him is to shoot stronger and be stronger. Obviously he has great range.”
That range was on display throughout the second half, but particularly in the final minutes when Duke turned a nip-and-tuck game into a comfortable win.
Duke’s lead was 48-44 with less than three minutes left when Tatum sealed the win on both ends.
Virginia’s London Perrantes missed a jumper and Tatum grabbed the defensive rebound.
On the other end of the court, with the shot clock running down, Tatum sank a 3-pointer for a 51-44 Duke lead at 2:45.
Tatum rebounded another Cavaliers missed and, once again, drilled a 3-pointer. This one, with 1:55 left, gave Duke a 54-44 lead and caused Tatum to dance and strut back up the court as Virginia called a timeout.
“Jayson had one of those few minutes where that’s what separates ordinary players from outstanding players,” Krzyzewski said. “Nothing about coaching there. We wanted him to take the shots and he hit them.”
The Cavaliers (18-7, 8-5 ACC) entered the game allowing an ACC-low 55 points per game. Teams have only shot 39 percent against them this season.
But Virginia could only marvel at Tatum’s performance.
“When Jayson Tatum doesn’t miss they are going to shoot for a good percentage,” Virginia forward Isaiah Wilkins said.
The Blue Devils needed Tatum more than ever on a night when two veteran starters, Amile Jefferson and Grayson Allen, had subpar nights. Both are playing at less than 100 percent due to nagging foot and ankle issues.
The 6-9 Jefferson and the 6-5 Allen combined to make 4 of 12 shots for nine total points.
Kennard, Duke’s leading scorer at 20 points per game this season, scored 16 but did so by making 9 of 10 free throws -- most of them in the final minutes.
So Tatum took the lead.
After a lackluster first half that left Virginia up 25-21, Duke made its first five shots after halftime and 8 of 12 overall to lead 43-37 with 10:40 to play.
Tatum led the charge, scoring 10 points over the first 10 minutes of the half.
When Duke missed its next five shots, Virginia made a push. Two Perrantes free throws and a Kyle Guy 3-pointer cut Duke’s lead to 43-42.
Tatum, of course, ended that Duke drought by nailing a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired giving Duke a 46-42 lead with 6:12 to play.
He never let them get closer than four points the rest of the game as he hit those big shots down the stretch.
Virginia hurt its cause by shooting a season-low 36.8 percent as Duke turned the tables on the defensive-minded Cavaliers.