CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia has grown painfully accustomed to close losses in recent weeks, falling to Villanova, Syracuse and Virginia Tech by a combined eight points. What the Cavaliers experienced Wednesday night at home to No. 12 Duke was something new — but no less painful.
The Blue Devils simply overwhelmed Virginia in the second half, even as the Cavaliers and their touted defense largely did its work against superstar Grayson Allen and sharpshooter Luke Kennard. The player Virginia didn’t account for — freshman Jayson Tatum — single-handedly cracked the game open over the final 20 minutes, finishing with a game-high 28 points as Duke pulled away for a 65-55 win.
The loss was the fourth in six games for No. 14 Virginia (18-7, 8-5 ACC). Things don’t get any easier for the Cavaliers, who travel to No. 10 North Carolina on Saturday night.
Tatum, one of Duke’s much-heralded McDonald’s all-Americans, connected on 6 of 7 attempts from the three-point line. The lanky freshman often simply rose above a Cavaliers defense bent on pushing Duke to the perimeter and beat Virginia from beyond the arc.
Virginia’s defense held Kennard, the No. 2 scorer in the ACC, to just 16 points and Allen, booed every time he had the ball, to five points on 2-of-10 shooting. But Duke (21-5, 9-4) had Tatum, and he was enough.
“He’s shooting about 33 percent from three in ACC play, but he’s a good one. He’s real good,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “[Brandon] Ingram did that to us last year, and I thought we were even a little closer. And then he just — those are plays that are made that win games for you. Sometimes we’ve made some of those and it’s made a difference. . . . He did it. As a freshman.”
Senior London Perrantes had 14 points and freshman point guard Ty Jerome had 13, but Virginia shot a season-low 36.8 percent from the floor and had myriad missed opportunities. The Cavaliers ended with 12 offensive rebounds but just four second-chance points.
Before two consecutive Tatum three-pointers finally broke a tight game open, John Paul Jones Arena had buzzed with energy. Security guards practiced forming a restraining wall on the floor just in case students rushed the court, and the arena’s namesake, John Paul Jones, sat courtside in front of a rowdy, packed crowd.
The precautions proved unnecessary, however, as the Cavaliers suffered their first double-digit loss at home since 2013 after a second half in which Duke shot 57.1 percent — compared with 33.3 percent from the floor in the first.
“We won a big-time game. . . . We played very well in that second-half. I mean, our offensive efficiency was outstanding, we made a little change to our offense that worked,” Krzyzewski said. “And then Jayson had one of those — a few minutes, where it’s what separates ordinary players from outstanding players. There’s nothing about coaching there.”
Virginia lost its 25-21 halftime edge early after intermission thanks to two turnovers in two minutes, both answered by baskets from Tatum.
For everything but the atmosphere, much of the game felt more like a chess match between Bennett and Krzyzewski — even by Virginia’s plodding standards.
Both teams had nervous energy to spare at the start. Junior center Jack Salt, staring down the Blue Devils fifth-year counterpart Amile Jefferson, jumped early at the opening tip, and Duke went 1 for 6 and had three turnovers in the first 4:50 before finding its rhythm. It climbed out of that hole with consecutive three-pointers from Kennard and Allen.
The high point for the Cavaliers was a six-minute defensive showcase that held the Blue Devils without a field goal. The problem: Duke’s defense was every bit as good, as Virginia was also held without a basket.
Even long after the crowd had cleared and teams had retreated to the locker room, Tatum remained the center of attention. He was the last Duke player to leave the floor Wednesday, sticking around to sign autographs for a young Blue Devils fan sporting a No. 3 jersey for Grayson Allen.