CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The hype is already beginning on Tobacco Road in advance of next week's showdown of unbeatens No. 1 Duke and No. 2 North Carolina.
The Blue Devils learned Friday night that looking ahead can be dangerous as they had to withstand a second-half challenge from Virginia for a 76-61 victory.
"I think people around the country think it's the Big Three, and we know -- we know -- it's not," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said of the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the rivals hold the top two spots and defending national champion Maryland is No. 4.
Lindsey Harding scored 21 points and Alison Bales added 11 points and 12 rebounds for the Blue Devils (23-0, 8-0), who are off to the best start in program history and won their 68th game in a row against unranked foes.
It was their 12th straight victory against the Cavaliers, but it didn't come as easily as anticipated because Lyndra Littles scored a career-high 28 for Virginia, helping the Cavaliers close to 63-56 with 3:57 left before the Blue Devils finished strong.
"A couple of times we made runs and I thought we were going to put them away, but every time we made a big run, Debbie (Ryan) called a time out, got them regrouped and they always responded," Goestenkors said, referring to the Cavaliers' coach.
Duke scored 13 of the last 18 points.
Harding said the Blue Devils, in their 28th week in the top spot in the poll over the past five seasons, don't even think about their lofty perch any more, especially not with the second half of the season to be played in one of the toughest leagues.
"We're just trying to continue to get better," Harding said.
Virginia (12-10, 2-6), lost its fifth straight league game, one shy of the program record it set last season, but Ryan said her team bounced back remarkably well.
The losing, she said, had started to wear on them greatly, so practices took a turn toward the amusing this week and it showed. "We went out with the attitude that we were going to play our butts off and have a good time doing it," Ryan said. "I think that's what you saw -- a team that had nothing to lose and was going to play hard."
Even in defeat, the Cavaliers were almost glowing afterward.
"Basketball has not been that fun in a while," said Sharnee Zoll, who had nine assists. "We were out there playing loose. We don't have pressure right now."
The Cavaliers made a run early in the second half with Littles scoring twice and Siedah Williams getting her first basket to make it 46-38 with 15 minutes left.
But with the crowd trying to spur the Cavaliers on, they instead turned the ball over without a shot on three consecutive possessions and Duke rebuilt its lead. Abby Waner hit a 3-pointer, Harding scored on a drive and Bales capped the 7-0 burst.
That made it 53-38, and while Virginia got it back under seven with just under 4 minutes to play, the Blue Devils settled down, converted their chances and held on.
Wanisha Smith added 13 points and Waner 12 for the Blue Devils.
Monica Wright had 12 points for Virginia before fouling out.
The Blue Devils used a 16-4 run to open a 22-10 lead and never let the Cavaliers closer than nine before halftime. Waner's 18-footer at the buzzer made it 42-31.