In the immediate aftermath of No. 16 Virginia’s 61-58 loss Thursday night at Duke, Cavaliers senior center Assane Sene made a good point.
“We play as a team. We play hard. We play good defense, man,” Sene said. “It’s not easy to play against us. But we just came out a little bit low. That really hurt us a little bit. We came out a little bit cold.”
Most of that is true. The Blue Devils became just the second Virginia opponent to score 60 or more points this season. The Cavaliers held a four-point lead at halftime and recovered from a few defensive lapses early in the second half to remain in contention on the road against the eighth-ranked team in the nation.
But those few defensive lapses were costly. They didn’t hurt Virginia just a little bit. They really hurt Virginia. Period. Especially on a night when, once again, the team leaned heavily on Mike Scott to score points — something he could only do effectively in the first half.
That brings us to Virginia Coach Tony Bennett, who also made a good point.
“To beat Duke here, you’ve got to be hitting on most cylinders,” Bennett said. “We were probably not quite there. We needed to be an eight-cylinder, and we were maybe a five-cylinder.”
1) Resiliency. Remember Virginia’s trip to Durham last year? When the Cavaliers owned a nine-point lead with 16 minutes to play and ended up getting beat by 16? Well it didn’t play out that way this time around, and that is a sign of growth by which Virginia fans can be encouraged. The Cavaliers owned a four-point halftime lead, and the first 10 minutes of the second half were miserable for Virginia on both ends of the floor. Duke extended its lead to nine points with just less than five minutes to play, but the Blue Devils’ push ended there. The Cavaliers trimmed the deficit to three and took two three-pointers on the game’s final possession that could have tied the game. Neither shot fell, obviously, but at least Virginia had not faded away as it had done the year before.
2) Mike Scott in the first half. The fifth-year senior forward was responsible for half of Virginia’s 14 made baskets before the intermission. He tallied 16 points on 7 of 10 shooting in 16 minutes in the first half. The Blue Devils were giving him space to shoot, and he was making them pay for it. Scott made long jump shots. He made baseline jump shots. He even made a three-pointer. As he has for much of the season, Scott appeared borderline unguardable. Duke defended him more closely in the second half, during which Scott managed just seven points. Still, it was an impressive performance. He also added a game-high nine rebounds.
3) Jontel Evans. The junior guard missed all six shots he attempted Thursday, and that certainly wasn’t good. But he did tally six assists without recording a single turnover. He also provided superb defense on Duke’s leading scorer, Austin Rivers, in the first half. And since he was playing with a heavy heart, we’re going to say that on the whole he turned in a pretty solid night. Evans’s great-grandmother, Agnus Palmer, passed away Wednesday at age 92. Like several of his teammates, Evans was subdued in the postgame locker room. But his pain extended far beyond the emotional toll of losing a close game at Duke.
1) Interior defense. Duke forward Mason Plumlee is a solid post player. But he’s probably not as dominant as the Cavaliers made him look early in the second half Thursday. Plumlee scored six of Duke’s first 10 points in the second half. He finished with a team-high 12 points, nine of which came after halftime.
“He just did what he wanted,” Scott said of Plumlee. “He just backed us down in there and got points.”
And when Plumlee wasn’t scoring, he was attracting enough attention to create open looks for his teammates on the perimeter.
With just less than 15 minutes remaining in the game, Scott came across the lane to help Sene defend Plumlee. Another Virginia defender sunk down to take Scott’s man, Duke forward Ryan Kelly. That left Blue Devils guard Seth Curry wide open on the perimeter. Duke swung the ball to Curry, who made a three-pointer to push the Blue Devils into the lead.
“I didn’t expect Plumlee to make plays like that,” Evans said. “Then when he started making plays, we started paying more attention to him, and that’s when they was kicking it out to shooters.”
Virginia’s defensive lapses in the first 10 minutes of the second half caused its lead to evaporate and allowed Duke to generate enough momentum to carry it to victory.
2) Offense (excluding Scott). We’ll give sophomore guard Joe Harris some credit. After attempting just two shots and sitting out the final nine minutes of the first half with foul trouble, Harris grew more aggressive after halftime. He scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half. But other than Harris, Scott did not receive much help on the offensive end. Evans shot 0 for 6 from the field. Fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski shot 0 for 8. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon shot 2 for 7. So of the six players who played the most minutes Thursday, three of them combined to shoot 2-for-21 from the field.
The Cavaliers simply need more offensive production than that. Their defense is good, but on some nights it won’t be good enough to overcome such offensive ineptitude. All of Virginia’s players took the loss hard, but Zeglinski seemed to take it the hardest. He knows he’s one of the team’s best shooters, and he knows the team needs him to be more productive than he was against Duke. To his credit, he was more than accountable in assessing his performance.
“We didn’t have that many other options as far as scoring,” Zeglinski said. “Mike was carrying us. Joe stepped up for us. I just wasn’t able to step up.”
To be clear, Virginia’s loss Thursday night certainly was not entirely Zeglinski’s fault. In a three-point defeat in which only Sene was perfect from the field (2 for 2), every Cavaliers player could point to an offensive opportunity missed.
3) Streaks. Virginia now has not won at Cameron Indoor Stadium in its past 15 tries. The Cavaliers have not defeated Duke on any floor in their past eight tries. The loss snapped Virginia’s 12-game winning streak and its five-game road winning streak.
But let’s not kid ourselves, the Cavaliers right now still are playing like the third-best team in the ACC.