The Cavaliers led the Blue Devils early in the second half Saturday when center Assane Sene committed his fourth foul, forcing him to the bench and U.Va. coach Tony Bennett into a smaller lineup.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, no rube he, countered with his own diminutive group, moving Nolan Smith from point guard to the wing, bringing Seth Curry off the bench to run the point and sitting forward Ryan Kelly.
The No. 1 Blue Devils promptly dusted the Cavaliers in the manner which many expected from tip to buzzer, overcoming a nine-point second-half deficit to win 76-60 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke (16-1, 2-1 ACC) shot 58.6 percent after intermission following a grim 34.5-percent opening period. The Blue Devils made 4-of-8 from beyond the 3-point arc after missing 11 of their first 12.
"I thought we had good looks in the first half," Krzyzewski said. "I didn't think we were playing that badly. We just couldn't put the ball in the basket. What happened was, I think it affected our defense a little bit."
Making matters worse for the Devils: They were fresh off their first defeat, at FSU, where they shot a season-low 31.1 percent.
Already young, and now without its most skilled player, freshman guard Kyrie Irving (toe injury), Duke looked fragile and timid, not what you'd expect from the defending national champion, not what you'd expect against undermanned Virginia (10-7, 1-2).
His team down 31-25 at the break, senior All-American Kyle Singler offered some harsh words in the locker room.
"It's the first time," Singler said of his outburst. "Just the feeling in the room wasn't right, and I guess I needed to change that. I've seen plenty of times when we come in at halftime and the feeling's not right in the locker room, and we usually don't win those games."
The Devils won with Singler (13 points, four rebounds) unusually quiet on the court, but with Smith scoring a game-high 29 points, his most in an ACC game. They won with Curry, in Krzyzewski's words, "doing the dirty work" of bringing the ball upcourt, diving for loose balls and grabbing six rebounds.
Krzyzewski said the small lineup was more an adjustment to Virginia than a big-picture strategic shift, but certainly he'll mine this lineup again. Smith certainly was more comfortable on the wing, his primary position last season, and this season before Irving's injury in early December.
"They spread you so well," Bennett said, "especially when they have Kyle at (power forward)."
Bennett's Cavaliers are similar that way, able to spread defenses with lineups that include capable shooters such as Mustapha Farrakhan, Will Sherrill, Joe Harris and Sammy Zeglinski. Farrakhan scored 15 points, but none after making three free throws with 19:20 remaining.
Credit Duke's defense, especially guard Andre Dawkins, whom Krzyzewski said played his best D of the season and who also scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime.
Bennett told his players Saturday would be "a battle for your composure for toughness," and for three-quarters of the game, the Cavaliers won that battle.
"When that went away," Bennett said, "that's when Duke separated."
It went away because Duke is better and, simply, began making shots.
"They'll be a tough out for anybody," Krzyzewski said of Virginia, "as they were today."
Krzyzewski's challenge is to make Duke a tough, if not impossible, out come the NCAA tournament. With Irving, whom he called "as good a player as there is the country," Duke was a clear No. 1.
Not so much without him. When/if Irving returns remains unknown — the best-case scenario is late February, just before the ACC tournament — and until then consider the Devils a notch below.
If they didn't believe that before Florida State, Krzyzewski's players do now.
"There's a part of you that wants your kid to get stung a little bit," Krzyzewski said, launching into a wry parenting seminar about kids' hands and stove burners.
"Experience," he concluded, "is a helluva thing."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP