MESSIER: Streaks are meant to be broken

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Coach Tony Bennett looks to turn Virginia's losing ways around in the marquee matchup with Duke.

Kiley Lovelace | Cavalier Daily

Cavalier fans are admittedly pretty spoiled when it comes to college hoops. Underclassmen have never experienced a loss at home. Every year since the 2013-14 season, Virginia (7-1) has made it to the NCAA Tournament, earning two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed.

Just earlier this week, No. 6 Virginia avoided a home loss with a late rally against Ohio State, edging out the Buckeyes (6-1) by a score of 63-61. It seemed like the ’Hoos just couldn’t lose.

The team has been hard to beat as of late, both at home and away. It didn’t seem like the Cavaliers could ever lose at John Paul Jones Arena — but they did. They lost to a physical and effective No. 25 West Virginia Saturday afternoon. The Mountaineers (7-1) won the game 66-57, ending Virginia’s home winning streak at 24 games — tied for sixth longest in the nation.

While I remember all of the successes of Virginia’s last three seasons, I also recall the times the team’s identity was challenged. I remember the frustrating loss to Tennessee during the 2013-14 season when the Cavaliers struggled on both sides of the ball, losing to the Volunteers 87-52. I remember what would later be coined as the “Tennessee Turnaround” when, after the loss, former-guard Joe Harris visited coach Tony Bennett’s house and talked about their vision for the season.

The rest is history — Virginia went on to post a 16-2 ACC conference record, winning the ACC regular season title and the ACC Tournament en route to earning a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Sometimes it takes a loss for a team to question its identity in the first place and better itself. The Cavaliers don’t have their go-to scorers from the past three seasons — losing Harris, Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon to the NBA. This year will be different, and Saturday’s loss to West Virginia presents an opportunity to go back to the drawing board to figure out what works for this Cavaliers team. Part of that has to do with which schemes of players Bennett decides to rely on.

“We have different strengths on our team, but I have to do a better job of finding them,” Bennett said.

Finding those strengths will be the mission of the remainder of the Cavaliers’ non-conference schedule. It’s no secret this year’s Virginia team is less experienced. The Cavaliers lost 45 percent of their scoring from last year with the loss of Brogdon and Anthony Gill — but what remains to be answered is who will step up.

The most obvious answer would be senior point guard London Perrantes, but for a player who has often elected to assist rather than shoot, the pressure to perform has proven tricky. The Los Angeles, Calif. native shot one-for-seven from behind the arc and two-for-10 from the field while recording seven assists against the Mountaineers.

“I feel like I get everybody’s best now, with Malcolm [Brogdon] and Anthony [Gill] being gone,” Perrantes said. “I just have to get used to it. It is early in the season and I’m not used to it, but we have guys that can step up and help me and help the team, so I’m not worried too much about it.”

One player who has stepped up on the team so far is junior guard Darius Thompson. Thompson, a member of the 2013-14 Tennessee team that handed the Cavaliers their 35-point loss in 2013, is in just his second season in Charlottesville. He led the team in scoring against the Mountaineers with 14 points, and now averages 9.8 points per game.

However, finding the right personnel is but one of several challenges facing the Cavaliers over the final exam break.

The Cavaliers know their margin for error this season is slim, and on Saturday they shot 7-13 from the line and committed 14 turnovers.

“We had some missed free throws and layups and some open shots as well,” Perrantes said. “I know I missed some shots, a lot of them, but with the teams that we are playing we can’t put ourselves in a hole that is going to be tough to get out of. I think we played well defensively and effort-wise. We just have to find a way to cut down on the errors.”

Mistakes are something the Cavaliers can work on, and Bennett and his staff know how to devise what combinations will work on the court. Considering Virginia’s ability to find their identity season after season, a broken streak and a loss to an impressive, nationally ranked team should not cause Cavalier fans to worry. Instead, they should heed the advice Bennett gave his players after the game.

“Coach Bennett said ‘It’s not the end of the season. Learn from this, grow from this.’ He didn’t think the effort was poor,” freshman guard Ty Jerome said. “We just need to fix a few breakdowns, and we’ll learn from it and get better.”

Mariel Messier is a Senior Associate Editor for the Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at m.messier@cavalierdaily.com.

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