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True Grit

Fans should not despair over Virginia's loss against Duke

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As the old adage goes, you learn more from failure than success. Personally, I would prefer winning every time, and I would bet the Virginia men’s basketball team feels the same way.

In a heartbreaking sequence of events in the final 30 seconds of a 69-65 road loss to Duke, we learned just how gritty the Cavaliers are.

Virginia spent much of the first half trying to claw its way back into the game. An early 8-0 Duke run did not make the normally shaking Cameron Indoor Stadium any more forgiving for the Cavaliers. At one of the toughest — if not the toughest — places to play in college basketball, Monday night’s start was a nightmare situation for any visiting team.

But the Cavaliers hung tough, pulling to within two points before losing all that ground and falling behind by 13. Duke shot 46.7 percent from the field in the first half, compared to the Cavaliers’ dismal 30.4. The Blue Devils outrebounded Virginia, including a 6-3 advantage on the offensive boards. They held senior guard and leading scorer Joe Harris — who drew the gazes of a few chatty Cameron Crazies seated near yours truly — scoreless for the first 18:14 of the game.

Yet Virginia managed to cut the deficit to single digits and remained in the game at halftime, even after such a poor first-half performance.

The second half featured much improved shooting by the Cavaliers, but each time they would go on a run, Duke seemed to have an answer. With a 63-52 Duke lead and less than four minutes to play, many — including myself, ashamedly — began to write off any chance of a comeback. Surely, Virginia could not make up that kind of ground in such little time.

But sophomore guard Justin Anderson, nicknamed Simba, has never been one to throw in the towel before the final buzzer. Anderson lived up to his lion-hearted namesake by providing a desperately-needed spark off the bench, first hitting a 3-pointer to cut the margin to eight points. He then tipped in a Mike Tobey miss in one of the most acrobatic feats we’ll likely see all year, drawing a foul on the play and converting the and-one opportunity.

Though he was removed from the starting lineup in favor of what is now coach Tony Bennett’s sixth different combination of starters, both Anderson’s play and relentlessly positive attitude have proved invaluable. Suddenly, the team was reenergized on both ends of the floor, as it often is with Anderson in the game. His steely resolve elevated the rest of the team’s play, and before you could spell Krzyzewski, Duke was on its heels.

Redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon took over next, tying the game with a layup plus a made and-one and then sinking a pair of free throws to take a 65-64 lead. It is almost impossible to overstate how clutch Brogdon’s free throws were; the stadium — already the loudest athletic venue I’ve ever visited — was deafening. The atmosphere was unlike virtually any the Cavaliers had ever seen before, including Brogdon, who played 17 minutes the last time Virginia visited Cameron.

Last time, though, Brogdon and the rest of the team had Mike Scott to rely on. This time, Virginia face its toughest test yet, and Brogdon answered the call.

If only the story had ended there. Duke would go on to take the lead off of one of the most favorable bounces I’ve ever seen a shot take, and the Cavaliers could not execute on the other end, turning the ball over and ending their comeback dreams.

But it was the Cavaliers’ tenacity that should prompt fans to applaud their efforts in Monday night’s game rather than sulk about what could have been. Coming back from a double-digit deficit against Duke in Durham is virtually unheard of. It was even more impressive because of how quickly it happened and because Virginia wasn’t even playing its best basketball.

After a few shaky games this season, particularly in the team’s blowout loss at Tennessee, Brogdon appears to be healthy and is playing better than ever, attacking on offense and driving to the basket at will. Freshman point guard London Perrantes showed no outward signs of intimidation in his first matchup against Duke, recording three assists and just one turnover against an aggressive, in-your-face defense.

I could talk about senior forward Akil Mitchell’s poor free-throw shooting, but enough has been said about that. Mitchell, despite his free-throw woes, grabbed five of his nine boards in the second half while his team outrebounded Duke, 20-11.

However, with Mitchell clearly not playing his best game, it was surprising to see Bennett employ such a short post rotation. Junior forward Darion Atkins, who played just four minutes, could have made significant contributions on defense had he played more. In the same vein, sophomore forward Anthony Gill played only 10 minutes, and I think the Cavaliers missed his tough, physical presence and his ability to draw fouls at times.

The biggest takeaway compared to last year? This year’s squad can compete with the cream of the ACC, even when Harris only scores 15 rather than 36 points.

And that’s really all you can ask for in sports: a chance to be in it at the end of the game. Sometimes the ball just bounces the other way, conveniently into Duke’s basket for three points.

After a trio of double-digit wins — including 23 and 31-point blowouts — in its first three conference games, the Cavaliers faltered, but revealed a determination akin to teams that play deep into March. Their undefeated conference record may have come to an abrupt end, but their season is truly just beginning.


Published January 14, 2014 in Sports

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