ELDER: Duke perfect opportunity for Virginia's regroup

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Though Perrantes led the Cavaliers in scoring against Virginia Tech, his uncharacteristic free throw woes hurt the team down the stretch.

Anna Hoover | Cavalier Daily

Say what you will about Virginia’s strength of schedule or the overall quality of ACC men’s basketball this season. The bottom line is Virginia is reeling right now. Big time.

The Cavaliers have lost three of their last five games — to Villanova, 61-59, Syracuse, 66-62 and Virginia Tech, 80-78 — despite holding leads of at least 12 points in the second half of each of those losses. All three were games the Cavaliers could have and should have won.

Virginia needs something — anything — to kick-start the latter half of conference play. A date against Duke is the perfect opportunity.

Virginia Tech is Virginia’s biggest rival in most sports, but not in basketball. There have hardly been any meaningful games in the series — not to mention the Cavaliers have still won nine of the past 11 meetings between the two programs.

North Carolina might be the Cavaliers’ most historic rival in men’s hoops, but lately, Virginia has had some success against the Tar Heels, winning three of the past five matchups since the 2013-14 season.

Rather, Virginia’s biggest nemesis has to be Duke. Cavalier fans should be happy they host those feisty Blue Devils Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena.

Let’s get this part out of the way — Duke has dominated Virginia for the better part of the last decade. Sure, the Cavaliers are only 2-4 in the past six games, but they’re 2-9 in the past 11. Coach Tony Bennett is 2-8 all-time in his Virginia career against the Blue Devils.

It’s not that Virginia wants to play Duke for an easy win — the Blue Devils have won five games in a row. Instead, Virginia needs to remind itself — and college basketball — why it is the No. 14 team in the country and why the selection committee projected it as a three-seed Saturday. A win against Duke will greatly help that cause.

The Cavaliers’ last three losses have been heartbreaking, to say the least. Against Villanova, Virginia had the chance to knock off the then-No. 1 team. But despite a heroic 15-point performance from guard Ty Jerome, the freshman missed a block-out, allowing the Wildcats a tip-in just before the final buzzer.

The Syracuse loss brought back all the foul memories the Cavalier faithful had hoped to forget from the Elite 8 matchup a season ago. Virginia blew a 12-point lead and connected on just 2-of-5 free throws in the loss at the Carrier Dome.

And against Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers couldn’t hold onto a 14-point halftime advantage. With multiple chances to win the game, usually clutch free-throw shooters Jerome and senior guard London Perrantes both had critical misses at the charity stripe. Yet no moment was more painful than watching Perrantes’s layup attempt die on top of the rim in a 68-68 game with 21.2 seconds remaining in the first overtime period.

Through the first 24 games of the season, it appears Virginia simply isn’t the same powerhouse of the past three years. And its last six regular season games are no joke — a meeting with Duke, two against North Carolina and contests against Miami, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh. Virginia has no time to sulk, especially if it wants to earn a top-four seed, double-bye and any realistic chance at winning the ACC Tournament.

The turnaround must start Wednesday against Duke in a rivalry where fans should expect a wild back-and-forth game.

In the past six meetings, the largest margin of victory was nine points in Virginia’s ACC Tournament Championship victory in 2014. The other five contests have all been decided by six points or less.

Just take last year’s game, when unranked Duke beat then-No. 7 Virginia 63-62 on a controversial buzzer-beating layup by guard Grayson Allen. But also remember the Cavaliers took the lead with under 10 seconds to play on a beautiful reverse layup by Malcolm Brogdon.

Or go back to the 2015 matchup, where a late barrage of triples from Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones dealt No. 2 Virginia its first loss of the season. Or even back to 2013, when a career-high 36-points from Joe Harris knocked off the No. 3 Blue Devils at JPJ.

The series has produced some thrilling matchups between two of the best programs in the game. The brightest stars come out when this game is on the line. Whether it is Perrantes or Duke’s Luke Kennard, burying deep threes will tell the college basketball world all it needs to know in this one.

For the Cavaliers, winning one of these tight games would go a long way towards legitimizing itself as a national contender. Losing four-of-six games at this stage in the year would be hard to overcome.

Virginia needs a wakeup call now more than ever. A win against Duke would provide just that.

Robert Elder was the 127th Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at r.elder@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @R_F_D_E.

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