By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Offensive ineptitude spoiled UVa’s turn on the big stage Wednesday night. A near-capacity crowd at John Paul Jones Arena, and an ESPN audience, saw the Cavaliers miss almost every type of shot imaginable in a 56-41 loss to fifth-ranked Duke.
The 56 points were a season low for the defending NCAA champion Blue Devils, who came in averaging 84.3. That total was plenty, though, against the Cavaliers, who actually attempted 10 more shots from the field than Duke. (Each team shot nine free throws.)
“We got some pretty good looks,” junior guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “A lot of shots rimmed out, and obviously we need to make shots to beat them.”
Virginia made only 16 of 56 attempts (28.6 percent). The Wahoos (3-8, 12-13) needed a late basket by freshman forward Akil Mitchell, who dunked with 24 seconds left, to break 40 points.
“I’m frustrated, because I feel like we’re better than that,” second-year coach Tony Bennett said after his team’s overall record fell below .500 for the first time this season.
“Let’s call it what it is. You gotta be able to make some baskets, you gotta be able to hit some shots. And I thought there was a large stretch in the second half where we got some pretty good looks, and the ball just wouldn’t go in. But you can’t be in a game if you’re shooting that percentage or struggling offensively like that.”
Not since Jeff Jones’ final game as coach at his alma mater, a 63-41 loss to Duke in the 1998 ACC tournament, had the ‘Hoos scored so few points in a game.
“We won a defensive struggle tonight,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Points were hard to come by. Their defense was good. I thought ours was a little bit better.”
This is a UVa team that went 10 of 13 on 3-pointers in a win over then-No. 15 Minnesota, hit 16 treys in a rout of Howard, shot 50 percent in a win over Georgia Tech, made 11 3-pointers in an overtime loss to Miami.
The Cavaliers have also shown, though, that they’re capable of stretches of dismal offense — remember the Dec. 22 loss to Seattle? — and on Wednesday night they faced a Duke team that was determined to blanket them on the perimeter.
“So is it a shock?” Bennett said when asked about his team’s offensive woes. “No. But it’s frustrating.”
The Devils (11-1, 24-2) were content to see the ball go in to Virginia’s offensively challenged center, 7-foot junior Assane Sene. They focused on shutting down UVa’s main scoring threats: perimeter players Joe Harris, Mustapha Farrkhan, KT Harrell and Zeglinski.
Those four were a combined 10 for 40.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well enough to beat pretty much anybody, [let alone] Duke,” said Harris, who was 2 for 11.
The Blue Devils “do a great job of taking away the 3-point line,” said Zeglinski, who was 1 for 7. “And then they try to make you score over top, and they’re got 7-footers in there. They’re a pretty good defensive team. It was tough offensively all night.”
Farrakhan, coming off a 3-for-15 performance against Florida State, was the only Cavalier in double figures Wednesday, with 11 points. But the senior guard missed 10 of 14 field-goal attempts and had a career-high 5 turnovers.
The few highlights that UVa produced came in the first 10 minutes. Midway through the first half, in fact, the ‘Hoos led 15-13, thanks in part to 3-pointers by Harris and Farrakhan. But Duke tightened its defense, and the misses began to mount for Virginia.
The Blue Devils took the lead with 9:36 left in first half on a trey by ACC player of the year candidate Nolan Smith, who was again magnificent. In Duke’s 76-60 win over UVa at Cameron Indoor Stadium last month — a game in which Bennett’s team played well for the first 30 minutes — Smith scored 29 points.
The senior guard finished with 22 in the rematch.
“To get 22 points in a game like this, that’s a lot of points,” Krzyzewski said.
When Duke “needed a bucket,” Bennett said, “Nolan Smith just took over. You saw why he’s the player he is.”
The Devils started 6-10 Mason Plumlee at center, 6-11 Ryan Kelly at power forward and 6-8 Kyle Singler at small forward. Duke exploited its staggering size advantage against UVa, which was without two of its top three post players — 6-8 Mike Scott (ankle) and 6-9 Will Sherrill (leg).
Bennett started Sene, the 6-6 Harris, the 6-4 Farrakhan, the 6-1 Zeglinski and 5-11 Jontel Evans. Save Sene, UVa players often found themselves matched against taller defenders. Kelly, a former Virginia recruiting target, scored 11 points and, at the other end, blocked four shots to lead the Devils’ stifling defense.
“I thought they executed their defensive plan pretty well tonight,” Zeglinski said. “It made it tough for us all night to get anything going.”
Duke’s All-America forward, Singler, never got going Wednesday night. He turned the ball over five times and had twice as many fouls (4) as points (2). It didn’t matter. Nor did it matter, on this night, that the Blue Devils turned the ball over 18 times.
Had he known that Duke would score only 56 points, Evans said, “I probably would have thought we were going to win the game. I probably wouldn’t have thought we were going to lose by double digits. If you can hold them to 56 points and one of their best players to two points, you should be neck and neck in the game, with a chance to win it, but things didn’t work out that way.”
Krzyzewski said the Cavaliers “had something to do with us not playing as well, because they’re good. They’re well-coached. They’re building something really good here.”
Those were gracious words from a Hall of Fame coach, but they would have been small consolation to Bennett had he heard Krzyzewski utter them.
Virginia’s players “did show some toughness, physically, defensively in the second half,” Bennett said. “But all that aside, [the loss was] tough, because I thought that we would be better than that in that game, and we weren’t.”
And now comes a date with one of the ACC’s hottest teams, Virginia Tech (7-4, 17-7), which visits JPJ on Saturday afternoon. When the teams met at Cassell Coliseum in December, the Cavaliers won 57-54. But they had the 6-8, 242-pound Scott then, and he had 21 points and 13 rebounds against the Hokies.
Scott played in only 10 games before an injury ended his season.
“We’re a different team now, different personnel,” Bennett said.
Still, he said, “As I told the guys, ‘What are you going to do?’ I told them I was frustrated, but let’s get back and hopefully come out and battle, and keep your defense strong and keep trying to find ways to get the looks and knock them down.”