Having allowed a 13-point second-half lead to slip away Saturday afternoon at Duke, Virginia was in danger of becoming the Blue Devils’ latest comeback victim.
That’s when the Cavaliers’ fearless sophomore point guard stepped up and hit a cold-blooded shot to wrest back control of the game.
With his team clinging to a two-point lead and less than a minute to play, Ty Jerome faked as though he was going to pass to his left and got Duke’s Trevon Duval to reach for the ball. That gave Jerome all the space he needed to step into a 25-footer that silenced the roaring Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd and propelled Virginia to its first win at Duke in 23 years.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) January 27, 2018
Virginia’s impressive 65-63 road victory tightened its grip on first place in the ACC and strengthened its bid to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The second-ranked Cavaliers (20-1, 9-0) are now at least two games clear of every other ACC contender with no games remaining against either Duke or North Carolina.
That Virginia is now three games ahead of preseason No. 1 Duke in the ACC title race is remarkable considering the Cavaliers were unranked before the season began. They graduated standout point guard London Perrantes and lost three other key contributors to transfers from a good yet hardly dominant 23-11 team that put up only 39 points in a second-round NCAA tournament loss.
The first two-thirds of this year’s college basketball season have served as a reminder not to doubt a Tony Bennett team no matter how much roster turnover it endures. Virginia once again boasts college basketball’s stingiest defense, a disciplined yet disruptive pack-line man-to-man that thrives on slowing the tempo to a crawl, pressuring the ball and surrendering nothing easy at the rim.
While Virginia has held ACC opponents to a meager 0.83 points per possession this season, Duke presented an entirely different level of challenge. The Blue Devils feature the nation’s second-most efficient offense, a fast-paced, multifaceted attack powered by future NBA draft picks Marvin Bagley III, Grayson Allen and Wendell Carter.
The contrast of styles was what made Saturday’s game so compelling.
Duke averages 92 points per game and had eclipsed 80 against every ACC opponent it has faced so far this season. Four ACC teams haven’t even broken 50 against Virginia this season and in the Cavaliers’ most recent game before Saturday, Clemson only managed 36.
In Saturday’s first half, the pace favored Virginia and so did the scoreboard. The Cavaliers forced eight turnovers and held Duke without a 3-pointer en route to a 32-22 lead.
But the easiest way to bring out the best in this year’s freshman-laden Duke team is to increase the degree of difficulty. The Blue Devils have roared back from double-digit second-half deficits with impressive ease against the likes of Florida, Texas and Miami.
Ditching its flawed man-to-man defense in favor of a more effective zone, Duke launched its latest second-half comeback by stringing together stops. Virginia grew too passive against the zone for a few possessions and also missed some open jumpers, fueling a 19-4 Blue Devils surge that gave the home team its first lead since the game’s opening minutes.
Credit Virginia for not folding under those circumstances the way so many other teams might have. Jack Salt stopped the bleeding with a layup, De’Andre Hunter sank a couple of big baskets before leaving with a left ankle injury and then Jerome hit the 3-pointer that gave the Cavaliers the breathing room they needed to eke out a massive victory.
Let their be no doubt now that Virginia is the ACC favorite and a legitimate Final Four threat.
On a raucous afternoon inside an arena that has been a house of horrors for them for decades, the Cavaliers thwarted Duke’s latest comeback bid and left with a credibility-boosting victory.
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