In a highly-anticipated and emotionally charged ACC Tournament final, No.13 Virginia struggled on offense and fell to No. 21 Duke by a score of 59-49 Saturday night in Greensboro, N.C.
The Cavaliers (25-7, 15-5 ACC) were held to just 49 points — their second-lowest point total in a game all season — by the Blue Devils (26-8, 14-6 ACC). A 16-48 split from the field and 12 turnovers crippled the Virginia offense which looked out of sorts all night long.
However, Coach Tony Bennett praised his team after the game despite not getting the result they had obviously hoped for.
“I told them I was proud of them for getting to this point,” Bennett said. “[Duke] just made some tough shots that were well defended late that just separated enough.”
Freshman guard Isaac McKneely also reflected on the loss and spoke about how hard the team played.
“We wanted to win that but we’re playing for something bigger,” McKneely said. “I’m really proud of our effort tonight, shots weren’t falling like they had been the past two games but I know once we get into the postseason that we’re gonna be ready.”
As the game got underway, the crowd was a factor in the contest. Duke captured most of the momentum for the first few minutes with a quick 6-0 run until senior guard Armaan Franklin drilled a three-pointer from the corner to settle the Cavaliers into the environment.
A three-pointer from freshman center Kyle Filipowski — making the score 11-5 Blue Devils — prompted roars from around the stadium before the ball had even reached the net. On the ensuing possession, Franklin was fouled on a layup attempt yet missed both free throws to give the crowd even more to jeer about.
But a fadeaway jumper from junior guard Reece Beekman and a forced shot clock violation kept the Blue Devils’ momentum temporarily at bay as the Cavaliers continued to try and chip away at the lead — which would become a theme for the rest of the night.
Despite getting a few key stops, the Cavalier offense crumbled under the Blue Devil defensive pressure on several occasions. Duke forced seven turnovers in the first half and even when Virginia was able to get shots up, they were closely guarded with low-percentage chances.
The Cavaliers managed to force a five-second violation and get a free throw from Franklin just before halftime and cut the lead — which was once 11 — to seven at 24-17. While Virginia had managed to keep the deficit in single digits, the first half felt dominated by Duke.
In the first half, Virginia shot just 6-22 from the field, 4-8 from the free throw line and was led by Beekman who shot 3-6 for six points. Meanwhile, Filipowski poured in 11 points as Duke shot 9-22 from the field, 5-6 from the line but committed six turnovers of their own.
Needing a jolt of energy coming out of the halftime locker room, the Cavaliers got a great three-pointer from Franklin and a steal by Beekman. But two failed fastbreaks where Virginia came up empty-handed — a missed dunk by junior forward Kadin Shedrick and a missed layup by graduate student guard Kihei Clark — thwarted attempts to close the gap.
Meanwhile, Duke junior guard Jeremy Roach hit a pair of three-pointers to put the Blue Devil lead to 36-22 and for a moment, the game felt like it was slowly falling out of reach for the Cavaliers.
However, Shedrick converted an and-1 layup, trying to breathe some life into the Virginia offense as the deficit again was 11 with just under 14 minutes to play. On the following possession, a wide-open dunk from graduate student forward Jayden Gardner cut the score to 36-27 — forcing Duke to take a timeout.
Both offenses went cold for the next stretch of play, enduring scoring droughts of around four minutes. But a catch-and-shoot triple from McKneely cut the lead to six — and the intensity heated up as the crowd rose to its feet.
Just as it felt like Virginia had a shot to make the game one possession away, a corner three-pointer from freshman guard Tyrese Proctor and a fastbreak dunk from Filipowski sent Duke fans into a frenzy, forcing Bennett to take a timeout. With 7:30 remaining, Duke led 43-32.
Arguably the most important chance of the game arose for Virginia late in the second half. After cutting the lead to seven, a block by freshman guard Ryan Dunn sent the Cavaliers in transition. Beekman found a wide-open Clark at the three-point line, but Clark missed and the opportunity to make it a four-point game slipped away.
Another late charge was made by Virginia as Beekman and Clark made layups, making it a five-point game with 1:07 remaining. But Duke sank their free throws in the final minute, including 4-4 from Roach and 2-2 from freshman forward Mark Mitchell, and the Cavaliers’ hail mary attempts fell short.
The combination of a cold shooting night by Virginia and swarming defense by Duke – which forced turnovers – made the game feel out of reach throughout most of the night for the Cavaliers.
Beekman and McKneely were the only Cavaliers in double figures, scoring 12 and 10 points respectively. Meanwhile, Roach and Filipowski had monster games to lead the Blue Devils, scoring 23 and 20 points respectively.
Bennett emphasized how this loss could be used as fuel for an NCAA Tournament run.
“The effort was there, and this was a good experience to be in,” Bennett said. “Learn from it and get ready to play.”
After the heartbreaking loss, there is still plenty of postseason promise left for Virginia. If shots are falling like they were against North Carolina and Clemson, the Cavaliers are poised for success as their defense is a near-guarantee to show up every night.
The Cavaliers learned their NCAA Tournament seed Sunday evening, receiving the No. 4 position in the Southern region. They will tip off against No. 13 seed Furman Thursday at 12:40 p.m. in Orlando, Fla. The game will be broadcast on TruTV.