By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The limitations of the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, particularly its lack of interior scoring, have been apparent all season. But the Cavaliers often have compensated with stellar defense and efficient offense, a combination that’s produced many memorable victories in head coach Tony Bennett‘s eighth season at UVA.
Still, the Wahoos’ margin for error remains perilously thin, as was clear Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. Against No. 12 Duke, whose roster is stocked with future NBA players, No. 14 UVA battled throughout but lost 65-55 to fall into sixth place in the unforgiving Atlantic Coast Conference.
“We’re fighting like crazy and we’re doing some good things, we have some strengths, but we’re going to be in a lot of close games,” Bennett said. “It’s a just fine line … This one, we played hard, but we got outplayed. And that’s the reality of it against Duke. I can’t say, `Well, if we had just gotten this one call it would have been different.’ Yeah, we need to shoot better, but they were the better team tonight.”
Virginia came in leading the ACC in field-goal percentage (49.2). Against Duke, the league’s hottest team, the `Hoos shot 36.8 percent, their worst marksmanship of the season. Their 55 points were a season low too, and they had only nine assists.
“That was a good defensive Duke team tonight,” Bennett said.
“It was a hard-fought game. I told our guys, `Don’t hang your head. You’ve got another tough one coming up, and that’s this league.’ ”
Indeed, the schedule gets no easier for UVA (18-7, 8-5), which has lost two straight games and four of its past six — all against opponents projected to make the NCAA tournament. Next up for Virginia is a date with ACC leader North Carolina (22-5, 10-3).
At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, the Cavaliers meet the 10th-ranked Tar Heels (22-5, 10-3) at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. ESPN will televise the game.
Virginia then returns home to face Miami (17-8, 7-6) on Monday night at JPJ. In a ceremony before that game, former UVA star Malcolm Brogdon, now a promising rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks, will have his number retired.
After the loss to Duke, Bennett said, “I told our guys, `If you’ll persevere and keep your head up and get what you can, all this stuff’s going to make us better, if you can play against this and find ways to improve, and that’s what we gotta keep doing … You’re in this gauntlet that’s this league, and you’ve got to try to survive it.’ ”
The Blue Devils (21-5, 9-4) came to sold-out JPJ on a five-game winning streak, and for a half Virginia stymied them, to the delight of the home fans. The Cavaliers held Duke without a field goal for the final 8:13 of the opening half and led 25-21 at the break.
That marked the fewest points scored by the Devils in a half this season, but they found their offensive rhythm after intermission. Duke scored on its first five possessions of the second half, a stretch in which heralded freshman Jayson Tatum had seven points.
The 6-8, 205-pound forward from Saint Louis, Mo., never cooled off. He finished with a game-high 28 points, 21 of which came in the second half.
“That was a big-time performance, Jiminy Christmas,” Duke head coach Mike Kryzyzewski said. “That’s why we won, for crying out loud.”
The Blue Devils led for the final 18 minutes and 22 seconds, but this was a one-point game with 6:20 to play, and the home fans were in full voice. Duke quieted the crowd. Three of the Devils’ next four field goals came on well-defended 3-pointers by Tatum with the shot clock running out. The last of those treys made it 54-44 with 1:54 remaining, and that was more than UVA could overcome.
“You saw a special performance by Jayson Tatum,” Bennett said.
At Cameron Indoor Stadium last season, another Duke freshman, Brandon Ingram, put on a similar shooting display in a close win over UVA. Ingram is now a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavaliers defended Tatum better than they had Ingram for much of that 2016 game, Bennett said, but superior talent prevailed Wednesday night.
“Jayson had one of those [stretches] where that’s what separates ordinary players from outstanding players,” Krzyzewski said. “There is nothing about coaching there. We wanted him to take the shots, but it was [a four-point game] and all of the sudden it was 10. That game was not a 10-point game. And so his shots were bigger because it’s a one- or two-possession game.”
Tatum, who came in shooting 31.7 percent from 3-point range, hit 6 of 7 from beyond the arc. The rest of the Blue Devils, including star guards Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard, were a combined 3 for 12 from 3-point range and 11 for 30 from the floor.
“As weird as it sounds, I think it was one of our best defensive games,” Virginia senior point guard London Perrantes said. “There were just tough plays at the end of the game by Jayson Tatum.”
Bennett, too, liked his team’s overall defensive effort. “But every time we needed a stop [Duke] kind of put the dagger in us with a late shot-clock play or a deep 3,” he said. “We’re working hard to become a better defensive team. So we’ve got to get better for 40 minutes, but it’s not for a lack of trying. [UVA players] tried hard tonight and it wasn’t enough.”
The Cavaliers’ struggles at the other end doomed them in the first game between these teams at JPJ since Jan. 31, 2015, when Duke rallied for a 69-63 victory.
Freshman Ty Jerome (13 points) came off the bench to make 5 of 8 shots Wednesday, but Virginia’s other guards — Perrantes, junior Marial Shayok, redshirt juniors Devon Hall and Darius Thompson, and freshman Kyle Guy — were a combined 12 for 40 from the floor.
The 6-2 Perrantes, who scored a team-high 14 points, is the only Cavalier averaging in double figures this season. Duke’s Matt Jones drew the assignment of covering him, and the 6-5 senior embraced the challenge.
“Perrantes is one of the best players in the country and he’s the guy that makes them go and he’s just an outstanding leader and player,” Krzyzewski said, “but he had to work really hard and he didn’t get the percentage that he normally gets, and that’s all you’re trying to do. I don’t think he played poorly, but I don’t think he played great, and that’s what you’re trying to do against the best player from the other team. So I credit Matt a lot with that.”
The Cavaliers made only 5 of 20 attempts from 3-point range, and they also missed several shots around the basket. Against a team with the Blue Devils’ firepower, poor marksmanship usually leads to defeat.
“You’re just doing everything you can to make them earn and hold them at bay,” Bennett said. “It’s just a matter of time before they’re going to emerge, and you’ve got to answer on the offensive end, and we weren’t able to.”