Despite repeated warnings from the arena's public address announcer, Virginia students spilled onto the floor as the final seconds elapsed in the Cavaliers' 73-68 victory over No. 3 Duke on Thursday night. The Cavaliers had reason to celebrate. They snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Blue Devils and beat a top-five opponent for the first time since beating Duke on Feb. 28, 2002.
It was all made possible by guard Joe Harris' career night. The junior scored 36 points, the highest total by an ACC player this season in a conference game, and afterward found himself right in the middle of the celebration.
"It's a special night," Harris said. "It's definitely one of my best nights since I've been a college student. I've never experienced having somebody storm the court. I was just excited and happy for all my teammates to be a part of it."
The win provided a huge boost to the NCAA tournament resume of Virginia, which was in desperate need of a marquee victory to offset early-season losses to the likes of Delaware and Old Dominion.
Harris and Akil Mitchell (19 points, 12 rebounds) carried the offense, and the defense held Duke's leading scorer, center Mason Plumlee, to 10 points and just two field goals while limiting the Blue Devils (22-4, 11-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) to 32 percent from 3-point range.
"We were really locked in, trying to stop these guys," Virginia point guard Jontel Evans said. "We give credit to Malcolm Brodgon and Anthony Gill. They're on the scout team. They're killing us and making us look bad in practice, but they're also helping us."
Virginia (20-8, 10-5) extended its home-court win streak to 16 games and led by as many as 16 in the second half.
Virginia's win clinched at least a share of the ACC regular-season title for idle Miami, which can finish no worse than 14-4 in conference play.
Seth Curry scored 28 points to lead the Blue Devils. Quinn Cook had 22.
"It was a very, very physical game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're not equipped to (play) that type of game. We got knocked back."
The Cavaliers extended a five-point halftime lead to 12 less than six minutes into the second half, thanks to strong free-throw shooting. Virginia led 34-26 after two Mitchell free throws with 16:47 left.
After two fruitless offensive trips, the Blue Devils lost their cool defensively. Rasheed Sulaimon fouled Harris going to the basket and turned around and barked at referee Roger Ayers, drawing a technical foul.
Harris knocked down four straight free throws to extend Virginia's lead to 38-26 with 15:10 to play.
Duke drew within nine on Curry's basket with 4:53 to play. But Harris knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 4:34 left to push the lead to 60-48. Duke snuck within 71-67 on Cook's 3-pointer with 22 seconds left, but Evan Nolte hit two free throws on the other end to seal the win.
Virginia got off to a scorching start, scoring the game's first nine points, the final four coming from the light-scoring Evans, who was averaging 4.5 points per game.
Duke got on the board when Sulaimon won a scramble for a loose ball and hit a layup with 15:21 remaining.
The Cavaliers stretched their lead to 18-6 on a Harris three-point play with 10:55 left. A costly foul helped Duke get back on track. Taylor Barnette hit Curry on a 3-point attempt right in front of the Virginia bench, and Curry knocked down two of the three free throws, sparking an 8-2 Duke surge that featured two Cook 3-pointers. Curry's 3 with 4:26 left in the half cut Virginia's lead to 22-21.
Virginia maintained the lead throughout the half, though. Plumlee didn't hit a field goal until 2:50 remained in the half, a shot that drew the Blue Devils within 24-23. But Virginia scored the final four points of the half, including two on a Mitchell putback of his own miss with 12 seconds left, to take a 28-23 lead into the break.
"He had to earn his catches and he had to earn his looks," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "Our guys really swarmed him well and played good ball-screen defense and good post-trap defense. One on one, it's hard to guard him."
NOTES: Because of the ACC's unbalanced schedule, Duke was making its first trip to Charlottesville since the 2010-11 season. ... Though he participated in pregame warmups, Duke F Ryan Kelly missed his 13th straight game with an injured foot. But there is hope he might be available to play next week in one of the Blue Devils' final two regular-season games. ... Virginia forward Darion Atkins, who has been in and out of the lineup with a shin injury, missed his second straight game.