A game lost in the final two minutes normally leaves a lot of what ifs and whys for the losing team.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would have none of it Tuesday night.
His No. 3-ranked Blue Devils climbed back to tie No. 20 Virginia Tech with 1:51 to play only to see the Hokies emerge with a 77-72 ACC win at Cassell Coliseum.
The game completed a tough six-game stretch in which Duke played four ranked teams, three of them on the road, over an 18-day stretch. Tuesday night’s loss left Duke 4-2 in those games, the last two of which were played without national player of the year candidate Zion Williamson.
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“Our guys played hard man, they played hard and tough and we just lost a real tough game,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve got to get back and get refreshed. That six-game stretch was going to be tough no matter what. Especially with four of the games being Saturday-Tuesday away games, it’s just an unusual thing. And when you lose Zion (Williamson) right in the middle then it escalates. Overall my team has done an outstanding job. We will move forward now. We learned a lot.”
Duke (24-4, 12-3 ACC) started the six-game stretch on Feb. 9 at Virginia, beating the Cavaliers 81-71. Three nights later, on a Tuesday night, the Blue Devils fell behind by 23 points but rallied in the final nine minutes to win 72-69 at Louisville.
Two home games followed -- a 94-78 win over N.C. State followed by the 88-72 loss to North Carolina. That’s the game where Williamson suffered a sprained knee and left the game after just 36 seconds.
Without their talented freshman forward, the Blue Devils won 75-65 at Syracuse on Saturday but failed to make the plays in the final two minutes three nights later and the Hokies claimed a big win on their home court.
‘Proud of my team’
Krzyzewski spoke highly of the Hokies, themselves short-handed with injured senior guard Justin Robinson missing his eighth consecutive game.
“I’m proud of my team,” Krzyzewski said. “They didn’t lose. Virginia Tech won. There is a big difference. Virginia Tech won a tough game, we fought them and they fought back, they were just a little bit more successful than we were.”
The Blue Devils have three regular-season games remaining: Home games with Miami on Saturday and Wake Forest the following Tuesday. The regular season ends at Chapel Hill against UNC.
Williamson very well could return in any one of those, given his status is day-to-day according to Duke.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils are doing their best without him. Their best isn’t as good as the best they showed at times this season with him.
In addition to his 21.6 points per game on offense, Williamson leads Duke with 8.8 rebounds plus 1.9 blocked shots and 2.1 steals per game.
Virginia Tech’s 6-10 junior forward Kerry Blackshear continued to play like an all-ACC first-teamer with 23 points and 10 rebounds against Duke. He’s strung together four consecutive games -- and five of seven -- with 20 points or more this month.
The Hokies committed just six turnovers as Duke recorded just one steal. Krzyzewski said Blackshear’s play all over the court made a big difference for the Hokies.
“You have a port in a storm but it’s a friendly port,” Krzyzewski said of Blackshear. “It’s not just someone you throw it to to score. He can make plays. He’s a playmaker for them. He’s the most unusual center in our league.”
‘Pride in our fight’
Unlike Saturday at Syracuse, Duke couldn’t overcome not having its unusual player, the 6-7, 285-pound Williamson.
“Once we started the game it was obvious that we weren’t getting our normal movements offensively and defensively,” Krzyzewski said. “They are accustomed to Zion to being that second big even though he is not a big. He is a great player. So we have to make some adjustments there.”
With RJ Barrett battling through a stomach illness to score 21 points and Cam Reddish adding 17, Duke erased Virginia Tech leads of five and six points during the second half. When the Hokies led 70-63 with 3:41 to play, Duke had one final push. Alex O’Connell’s 3-pointer, followed by two dunks from Marques Bolden tied the score at 70 with 1:51 to play.
“We have a lot of pride in our fight,” Reddish said. “Coach stresses that we fight regardless of the situation -- practice, games, regardless. I thought as a team we did a good job fighting. But we didn’t come out the winner.”
Duke had found a way on Jan. 12 to beat Florida State, 80-78, with Williamson on the bench after halftime due to double vision from a poked eye.
The Blue Devils handed Virginia its first loss of the season on Jan. 19 while freshman point guard Tre Jones wasn’t in uniform due to a separated shoulder.
They won at Syracuse, a team that had defeated them earlier this season, on Saturday night in their first full game without Williamson this season.
Even though Duke shot 50 percent overall, including seven of 21 (33 percent) on 3-pointers, it didn’t have enough against Virginia Tech.
Goal still a national title
The loss cripples Duke’s chances to finish first in the ACC regular-season race. UNC (23-5, 13-2) has the edge in that race with Virginia (24-2, 12-2) a half-game back. Duke is a game behind UNC and a half game back of UVA.
At end of a difficult stretch of games, the Blue Devils welcome a day off on Wednesday before prepping for Miami’s visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday.
A team of Duke’s caliber doesn’t like to lose, but the Blue Devils remain philosophical about the loss. They need to be healthy for the tournaments in March, especially the NCAAs.
For all the ups and downs, a national title is still attainable.
“We have to make some adjustments there and that’s the thing,” Krzyzewski said. “We want to go through things where we don’t have to make adjustments. But we have had to make a number of them. Overall our kids have done a good job with them and it’s not like you just go there and practice for two hours, they are already worn out. Tre is worn out, it’s just that time of the year where you get worn down.”