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Jan. 10, 2016

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ATLANTA — What was always going to be a game of consequence for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team grew in importance this weekend.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the fourth-ranked Cavaliers (12-3 overall, 1-2 ACC) will host 12th-ranked Miami (13-1, 2-0) at John Paul Jones Arena, where they are unbeaten this season. For UVA, which figures to tumble when the next Associated Press poll is released Monday, the game will be an opportunity to end a perplexing slide.

For the first time since December 2013, Virginia has lost back-to-back games. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, will arrive at JPJ with an eight-game winning streak.

“Very good team,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “We’ve got to bring our A-game if we want to have a chance in the game.”

UVA’s losing streak began Monday night in Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech held off a late rally and won 70-68. Five days later, against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, the Wahoos again faced a double-digit deficit in the second half, and again they saw their comeback bid fall short.

“We’ve just got to find a higher level of quality from start to finish,” head coach Tony Bennett said.

After battling back to tie the game at 49-49, Virginia went scoreless for more than 4 minutes and 20 seconds, a stretch during which the Yellow Jackets made three straight 3-pointers. The `Hoos mounted another rally, but Georgia Tech made enough free throws late to prevail 68-64 on Saturday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion, where orange-clad fans were well-represented in the crowd of 8,073.

“We’ve been getting everybody’s best shot,” junior point guard London Perrantes said. “We just haven’t been coming with a good shot of our own. That’s how you get beat.”

The ACC tournament championship Virginia won in 2013-14? The back-to-back ACC regular-season titles? The back-to-back 30-win seasons?

Those feats do not guarantee continued success. In fact, they give opponents added motivation. The Hokies had lost seven straight to the Cavaliers before winning Monday. The Jackets had dropped eight of their previous nine meetings with UVA before winning Saturday.

“I think we played two tough teams, and we didn’t show up to play, to be honest with you,” senior center Mike Tobey said.

The losses, Tobey added, should make the `Hoos “realize we need to have that underdog mentality again. I think we were playing like frontrunners, and that’s never good for a team like us when we were built on being a blue-collar program that plays like underdogs.”

Virginia’s veterans — players such as Perrantes, fifth-year seniors Brogdon and Anthony Gill, and seniors Tobey and Evan Nolte — have “won so many games,” said Bennett, but he noted that such success doesn’t come automatically.

“You’ve got to battle for everything,” Bennett said, “and you can’t ever get tired of doing the little things that have gotten you to win. Those are hard things to do every time, the discipline that’s required. And we’re a different team. We’re still trying to find ourselves, as you can see, with me rotating around different guys at different times.”

For the first time since the Cavaliers’ Dec. 5 win over William & Mary, their starting lineup included Tobey and sophomore swingman Marial Shayok.

“I was trying to go back to when I thought we played fairly rugged, tough basketball this year,” Bennett said, citing the Charleston (S.C.) Classic, which the Cavaliers won in November.

Redshirt freshman Jack Salt, a 6-11 center, played eight minutes off the bench Saturday, only his second appearance in the Cavaliers’ past six games. Nolte, who like Brogdon and sophomore swingman Isaiah Wilkins grew up in the Atlanta area, played a season-high 16 minutes.

After a Brogdon 3-pointer pulled Virginia to 47-41 with 10:40 remaining, Bennett went with Tobey, Nolte, Perrantes, Shayok and Wilkins, an unconventional lineup that provided a noticeable spark. The gap between the teams steadily closed, and when Wilkins passed to Shayok for a 3-pointer from the right wing, it was 49-49 with 6:06 remaining.

“The group that got us back,” Bennett said, “I thought they showed the effort and [played] the right way, moving the ball, [commitment] we’ve got to just have more of.”

Wilkins said: “We just knew that we had to pick the energy up to get back in the game. They came out and kind of punched us in the mouth, and we seemed really sluggish. So the group that came in, we just told each other, `We’ve got each other’s backs. Just play hard, and we’ll go from there.’ “

The run stopped with Shayok’s trey. Virginia didn’t score again until a free throw by Gill made it 60-50 with 1:42 left.

At 49-49, Perrantes said, “It’s a new game. It was 0-0 at that point, and then I think they hit three or four 3s in a row. They just gave us their best shot, and we just couldn’t handle it.”

The `Hoos limited Georgia Tech big man Charles Mitchell, who came in averaging a double-double, to six points and six rebounds. But forward Quinton Stephens, in his first start of the season, totaled 16 points. So did one of the Jackets’ starting guards, Adam Smith, who played at Virginia Tech last season.

Stephens, a 6-9 junior, was 0 for 1 from 3-point range in Georgia Tech’s first two ACC games. He was 4 for 4 from beyond the arc against Virginia. Stephens entered the game averaging 5.1 points. He had 10 in the first eight minutes Saturday.

“Obviously he had a breakout game,” Bennett said.

The Jackets’ roster is stocked with transfers, and they include 6-8 graduate student James White (Arkansas-Little Rock), who grabbed five rebounds at the offensive end and nine overall Saturday. Three of White’s offensive boards came in the first five minutes of the second half as Virginia tried to scrap back into contention after trailing 35-24 at the break.

“We had a couple good stands defensively, believe it or not, in that [stretch],” Bennett said. “We’re not playing great defensively, but we did, and those are killers, when you take `em to the end of the shot clock, and then all of the sudden [they grab] an offensive rebound, run their offense again and lay it back in. And that happened too much.”

Gill played only 26 minutes Saturday and Brogdon 31, the fewest in a game for each since Nov. 25.

The 6-5 Brogdon scored the Cavaliers’ first seven points and finished with a team-high 19, but he was 1 for 9 from beyond the arc. The 6-8 Gill scored 11 points, but he grabbed only two rebounds, a season low. On an afternoon when the Jackets held a 41-29 edge in rebounds, the 7-0 Tobey led Virginia with seven boards.

The Jackets turned their 11 offensive rebounds into 15 second-chance points.

“They just wanted it more,” Wilkins said.

The Cavaliers had other problems Saturday. The Jackets capitalized on Virginia’s defensive lapses and hit 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range. That was reminiscent of UVA’s perimeter defense against Virginia Tech, which was 9 for 17 from beyond the arc Monday night.

Such numbers are troubling for a program that has built its reputation on stifling defense.

“The past couple years, I’ve been confident we’re a defensive-minded team,” Brogdon said. “There’s never been `I think’ or a question of [whether Virginia is sound defensively]. We’ve got to re-evaluate ourselves.”

Saturday marked the fourth time in five games that the Cavaliers went into halftime trailing. Brogdon was asked what’s causing the slow starts.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve got to find five guys that are going to come out and play hard every night, regardless of the circumstance, regardless of whether we’re at home or we’re on a visiting court. We’ve just got to come out and play, and play hard.”

Bennett said: “We got work to do. That’s the bottom line.”

LOW INVENTORY: Approximately 750 tickets remain for Tuesday’s game at JPJ. With classes at the University not scheduled to begin until Jan. 20, most of the available tickets are in sections 301 and 302, which are normally reserved for UVA students.

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