Mustapha Farrakhan was one of only four Cavaliers to score in a spirited loss to Duke at the ACC Tournament.
GREENSBORO, N.C. – At the 4:05 mark of the second half, the normally quiet, sedentary Mike Krzyzewski was on his feet and red in the face with excitement. He threw his fist as if cracking a whip, then raised his arms toward the crowd, inviting them to get as fired up as he was.
Duke’s Kyle Singler had just finished a put-back to give the Blue Devils an eight-point lead over Virginia. The same team that had been non-competitive with Duke in Charlottesville on Feb. 28 and not close to half the conference in recent games.
Even in a losing effort, it was a sign of just how far the program has come in the last week and a half.
The Cavaliers lost their ninth game by double figures to Duke, and their sixth such loss in their last eight games – but perhaps no loss was more gratifying from Virginia’s perspective than this one. With depleted personnel from an already talent-starved team, the Hoos hung around, and hung around, and hung around against a Blue Devil team vying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And that is why, even though the Cavaliers failed to score a field goal in the final 6:24, and even though Virginia likely concluded its first season under Tony Bennett with a 57-46 defeat in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals, the team heads back to Charlottesville with the confidence as if it had won.
The Cavaliers held the Blue Devils to a season-low 57 points on 38.2 percent shooting, kept Duke out of transition, took limited transition opportunities when they presented themselves, and played scrappy, competitive basketball.
“I thought we showed some toughness tonight,” guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “Defense kept us in it.”
It wasn’t a Bennett win. But the game certainly represented a Bennett-style game.
“I thought our kids battled as hard as I’ve seen them battle for certainly the majority of the game,” Bennett said. “We looked like we ran out of a little gas maybe the last five minutes, but we touched on defensively what we need to come to compete against a team like Duke.”
Jeff Jones led all Virginia scorers with 15 points, his third consecutive game in double figures.
Offensively, Jeff Jones had another strong game, leading Virginia with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, while Mike Scott recorded a second consecutive double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. The Hoos, however, did not have enough firepower from elsewhere, as only four players scored for Virginia – Mustapha Farrakhan and Jerome Meyinsse both shot just 3 of 9 from the floor to complete the scoring. The rest of the Cavaliers missed all of their 14 field goals, including nine misses from Zeglinski, the Hoos’ hottest hand against Boston College the day before.
Needless to say, top-seeded Duke was a heavy favorite going into the game – and if someone had correctly predicted that Virginia would make only a third of its shots in the first half, a Duke rout seemed like an obvious outcome. But even as the Cavaliers hit only 9 of 27 field goals in the opening period, the Blue Devils were even worse at a 31-percent clip, including 2-of-10 shooting from Jon Scheyer. The game had taken on the character of a pitcher’s duel, and the scoreboard remarkably read 27-27 at halftime.
“At halftime, we just talked about, keep fighting on defense,” said senior Jerome Meyinsse , who likely played his last game as a Cavalier. “I think that was the big difference between this game and last game [against Duke].”
The battle was on in the second half. One early possession with Duke leading 35-33 illustrated the heated affair: on one end, Mustapha Farrakhan mishandled a pass, then saved a backcourt violation but gave the ball right to Duke’s Nolan Smith . Farrakhan backtracked with a 2-on-1 coming at him, and Smith attempted to bounce to Kyle Singler – but, the ball hit Farrakhan’s leg and headed back toward midcourt. As Krzyzewski beckoned toward the referees for a kicked-ball call to no avail, Smith and Zeglinski were in a footrace to the ball as it crossed into Duke’s backcourt; as both players dove, Smith got there first. Zeglinski had his hands on the ball a split-second later, and one referee signaled for a jump ball. Another official, though, signaled that Duke had called timeout first, much to the dismay of Bennett.
“I saw the signal for jump ball,” Bennett said. “Every possession was so valuable for both teams down the stretch.”
Playing the No. 5 team in the country without Sylven Landesberg , every possession clearly counted for Virginia. But what had the crowd in Greensboro roaring at the game’s every turn in the second half was that each possession was equally important for the Blue Devils, as well.
As the second half wore on, everyone in the building knew that Duke would make a run – and so it did following the timeout. In the most difficult match-up for UVa – and most any opponent – Kyle Singler gave the Blue Devils the initial lift, knocking down a 3-pointer from the wing and delivering a lay-up over Farrakhan on consecutive possessions.
Mike Scott recorded his second consecutive double-double, scoring 14 points and adding 11 rebounds.
A jumper from Scott quelled the run somewhat, and Virginia appeared to gain more momentum when Evans anticipated an entry pass to the wing and came down with a steal. Evans, though, missed an easy lay-up in transition – one of two blown transition opportunities for the freshman, to go along with some missed easy buckets from the rest of the Cavaliers, as well.
“You’ve got to capitalize on those when you get them,” Bennett said. “Those are gold for us, especially the way we were defending. When we couldn’t get those, that’s tough.”
Singler again countered, pulling down an offensive rebound on Duke’s next possession and dribbling out to the wing. This time with Jones defending, Singler stared him down and drained a 3 just in front of his bench. As Virginia missed yet another transition opportunity, Duke knocked down three free throws for a 46-35 lead.
But the Cavaliers still weren’t finished. A jump hook in the lane from Meyinsse broke the Cavalier drought – a rare sight in this game, as Brian Zoubek and company were draped all over the senior. Virginia then held Duke to four empty possessions, as a transition lay-up from Farrakhan, a drive to the rim from Jones, and a Farrakhan 3-ball off a dribble hand-off brought the Cavaliers to within two.
“I don’t think it was the best game we ever played, but I think Virginia had a lot to do with that,” Krzyzewski said. “How they handled the ball, and how they controlled the tempo.”
From there, Scheyer – who had made just two field goals at that point while being defended by both Zeglinski and Evans – came to life. The runner-up for ACC Player of the Year scored three baskets in a span of 2:34, including a spectacular and-one bucket in which he split two defenders in the air before laying the ball off the glass. Finally, the Blue Devils put to rest any thoughts of a startling upset; the better team won the game.
“I think we had Duke nervous for a little while, but they showed why they’re a heck of a team, so well-coached, so poised,” Bennett said. “When it got to that time when you had to make the plays, they certainly made some.”
The Cavaliers may have lost the game to a superior team. What Virginia did win, however, was respectability within the conference at an all-important time for the program.
“I said to our staff, ‘This is an important game for us to be in at this stage in our tenure, just to get in a tough hard-nosed setting against one of the best, and see if you can stand in there,'” Bennett said. “I thought that was important to at least show that. We’ve got miles to go, and I understand that, and it’s humbling to get beat how we have. But I think it was an important experience for us to go through.”
After Virginia was indeed humbled throughout the month of February, things could have gone very south with the program. But with the way the Cavaliers rallied after losing Landesberg for the season, the team made an important statement – one that may well serve as a unifying tool as the Hoos head into the offseason.
“Personally, I thought the departure of Sylven would be bad for team chemistry,” Evans said. “But we all came together as a team, everybody kept the morale up, and everybody was positive.
“I think people realize Virginia is a program that’s going to have to be reckoned with. Just look towards the future, because there’s going to be some great things.”