If the Duke Blue Devils hit 3-pointers like they did at Virginia, forget about beating them

Coach K breaks down win over UVA

Blue Devils take the lead early and never look back in 81-71 victory at Virginia
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Blue Devils take the lead early and never look back in 81-71 victory at Virginia

In this case, perhaps the numbers do lie.

For all its talent, Duke’s soft underbelly, its area of exposure, appeared to be its 3-point shooting.

Entering Saturday night’s showdown with No. 3 Virginia, the Blue Devils had only made 30.8 percent of their 3-point shots this season. You could find 300 or so college basketball teams shooting better from behind the 3-point line.

You can’t blame Virginia coach Tony Bennett for hoping the Blue Devils attempted as many 3-pointers as possible. Notre Dame’s Mike Brey had the same wish two weeks ago.

But, like Brey, Bennett could only shake his head in amazement as Duke singed the nets on the way to an 81-71 over the Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena.

When Duke beat Virginia 72-70 back on Jan. 19 in Durham, the Blue Devils hit only 2 of 14 3-pointers.

In completing the regular-season sweep over Virginia on Saturday night, the Blue Devils hit 13 of 21.

A plan to cut off the driving lanes, even if it meant Duke’s shooters were wide open, proved a bad idea.

“We plugged the gaps and we probably were in there a little long and they hit deep shots,” Bennett said. “They have some special players in what they can do. It’s not just if you’re really tight on them, they certainly can beat you off the dribble and get on the glass, but they weren’t missing many.”

It’s hard to find fault in Bennett’s plan, just as it wasn’t when Notre Dame’s Brey saw the Blue Devils hit nine of 16 while beating his Irish 83-61 back on Jan. 28.

The rest of the country must accept this reality: When Duke hits 3-pointers, it is nearly impossible to beat.

The NCAA tournament’s selection committee released its first draft of the top 16 seeds just after noon on Saturday. Duke and Virginia didn’t tip off for another five hours or so.

The committee named Duke (21-2, 9-1 in ACC) as the No. 1 overall seed. After this win over Virginia, the gap between Duke and the rest of the country is even wider.

Adding solid 3-point shooting to a team that is already one of the nation’s top offensive teams, plus a team that has proven adept defensively, only adds to Duke’s wow factor.

“We noticed we haven’t been shooting the 3 very well,” Williamson said. “So we’ve practiced it a lot more. When we open up the defense with 3s, it just makes our driving lanes much bigger.”

Way back on Nov. 6, when Duke served notice it was a serious national title contender with a 118-84 demolishing of Kentucky, the Blue Devils hit 12 of 26 3-pointers (46.2 percent).

They hit 15 the following game while smashing Army 94-72.

But since then, Duke has only hit 10 or more 3-pointers in four other games prior to Saturday at Virginia.

Mixed in there, along with the 2 of 14 against Virginia, was a 2 of 21 day against Georgia Tech and a 3 of 20 game against Texas Tech.

Notice, though, the Blue Devils won all of those games.

Poor 3-point shooting cost Duke in a 95-91 overtime loss to Syracuse. That night, as Duke scrambled to put together an offense without starters Cam Reddish (flu) and Tre Jones (shoulder injury), the Blue Devils made just 9 of 43 3-pointers (20.9 percent).

Thus the very valid idea that Duke’s perimeter shooting was a weakness.

RJ Barrett’s six 3-pointers and five more from Reddish on Saturday night at Virginia helped erase that game plan.

“We knew we were capable of shooting,” Reddish said. “We continued to stay with it and keep shooting and trust each other. I think it’s that simple.”

Duke will need to keep playing at this level to continue its winning streak, which reached seven games with the win over Virginia.

The Blue Devils play at No. 16 Louisville on Tuesday night before a home game with N.C. State on Saturday. No. 8 North Carolina comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 20.

Yes there are plenty of tough games for Duke over its final eight regular-season games. The ACC and NCAA tournaments follow.

But if the Blue Devils’ 3-point shooting stroke is true, everyone could simply be playing for second place.

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.