- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2015

CHARLOTTESVILLE | As soon as Tyus Jones’ 3-pointer dropped through the bottom of the net with 10.4 seconds remaining on Saturday night, London Perrantes rolled his head downward, resignation radiating through his body.

Perrantes and his Virginia teammates had, not 10 minutes earlier, led Duke by 11 points, making it likely the second-ranked Cavaliers would overcome a poor start and their uncharacteristic defensive lapses.

Instead, a late barrage of Duke 3-pointers and a poorly timed shooting drought doomed Virginia, which saw its attempt to complete an undefeated season end with a 69-63 loss.

“I told our guys, ‘If you won, it didn’t make or break your season, and if you lost, it didn’t. It’s what you do from here on out,’” coach Tony Bennett said after the game. “I think our guys understand that.”

Virginia had won its first 19 games, marking its best start since it opened with a 23-game winning streak in 1980-81. It had won 21 consecutive games at John Paul Jones Arena, the longest streak in the ACC in more than a decade, and had frequently done so with its trademark suffocating defense — one that often gave opponents fits.

Any hangover, though, would need to be flushed quickly. The game against Duke was just the first of three consecutive meetings against ranked ACC opponents, with the second — a road game against No. 13 North Carolina — looming Monday night.

“It’s good,” Perrantes said after the game. “We get to worry about this less than if we had a week to just sit on it and think about this. We don’t have any time. Tonight is the only time we can think about it, and we’ll just move on.”

That postgame message, conceived by Bennett, jived with the Cavaliers’ season-long approach. For weeks, they had guarded against a heavy emotional investment in any specific outcome by remembering that everything could teach a lesson.

Emphatic victories over Maryland, George Washington and Harvard, which lost by 49 points, were merely tools Bennett used to get his team to play better. So, too, were narrow victories at Miami and Virginia Tech, with the Cavaliers escaping from both opponents in overtime.

While several players insisted late Saturday, after the game had ended, that they’d need to watch the film of the game to isolate specific breakdowns, Virginia’s failures were common.

Their perimeter shooting fell flat, with the Cavaliers making only three of their 13 3-point attempts. They were slow to attack the rim, doing so consistently only at the start of the second half, and they failed to convert off several offensive rebounds.

Defensively, however, their lapses were magnified. Duke shot 50.4 percent from the floor, marking the first time Virginia had allowed an opponent to make more than half of its shots in its last 43 games. The Blue Devils also scored 43 points in the second half — which was nearly all of the 49.7 points the Cavaliers had allowed per game this season.

Though Virginia held talented freshman center Jahlil Okafor to just 10 points by consistently double-teaming him and backing him away from the rim, his consecutive baskets within a minute midway through the second half fueled a 13-4 run from the Blue Devils.

And, to combat the Cavaliers’ interior pressure, Duke frequently pushed the ball in transition, taking advantage of Virginia’s inability to get set with several strong up-court passes. At one point in the first half, forward Justise Winslow gashed the Cavaliers with a pair of transition layups, helping the Blue Devils outscore Virginia on the fast break, 14-0.

“It’s frustrating,” guard Justin Anderson said. “Our coaches said in practices before they don’t like to get it up on the dribble. They like to pass it ahead, and they did. North Carolina does the same thing. They love to pass the ball ahead if you’re not back there correctly in transition.

“We did a poor job of it tonight. We just have to make sure we get back to who we are, our identity, and go down to Chapel Hill and fix it.”

The Tar Heels lost 78-68, in overtime, on Saturday to No. 10 Louisville — the team the Cavaliers will play at home after visiting North Carolina. They, too, have talented perimeter shooters and a stable interior presence, which will make, in essence, the game against Duke an apt warm-up for Monday’s challenges.

Still, Bennett said he didn’t believe Virginia would benefit from the release of any pressure related to remaining undefeated this season. What it would take away, he said, was that his players need to have a consistent sense of focus and urgency to be able to put teams such as Duke away.

“That’s the beauty of this league,” Bennett said. “I remember talking to somebody who was in the Big East before, when it was the real power, [who said,] ‘You better lace ‘em up every night.’ Obviously, what we’ve got coming up, we’ve got to be ready for that.”

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