In the short term, the ride back to Charlottesville, VA from Durham, NC is going to be a bitter, quiet one for the Virginia Cavaliers. Down 11 in the final four minutes, the Cavaliers took a one-point lead in the final minute only to fall at Duke, 69-65. The loss was Virginia’s (12-5, 3-1 ACC) first in the conference.
In the long term, however, Monday night’s game served notice that while Syracuse is still the favorite right now to win the ACC, Virginia will be in the race to the end, and if the Cavaliers can get some breaks to go their way, they will be in contention for the conference title until the final day.
In many ways, UVA played the kind of game it would have hoped for at Duke. Virginia went 19-for-26 from the free-throw line, while Duke was just 15-for-20. The Cavaliers held the host Blue Devils to just 69 points — Duke’s third lowest output of the season. Virginia also had a 34-31 rebounding edge over Duke (13-4, 2-2 ACC). Malcolm Brogdon led the Cavaliers with 17 points, while Akil Mitchell had a team-high nine rebounds (and a key late-game turnover).
Yet, a couple of bad bounces late did the Cavaliers in, the type of bounces Virginia isn’t likely to see again the entire season. The first came on Rasheed Sulaimon‘s three-pointer from the corner with 19 seconds that bounced high off the rim and back in to give Duke a two-point lead. After Virginia failed to get a shot off on its next possession, 41 percent free-throw shooter Amile Jefferson hit a pair, bricking the second off the back of the rim but having it somehow fall in anyway.
It’s fair to ask how Virginia can be judged a contender in the ACC after such a loss. But remember, for Virginia, losing at Duke is nothing new. It’s now happened 16 straight times, but the Cavaliers are already 2-1 on the road in the conference, having won by lopsided margins at Florida State and North Carolina State.
Virginia is also a contender because their schedule gets a bit more manageable in the coming days. The Cavaliers’ next three ACC games are all at home, against Florida State (a rare early ACC season rematch), North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Those three teams are a combined 3-6 in the ACC right now. Should Virginia play up to their expected level, they will win all three games and move to 6-1 in the conference before their next road game at Notre Dame on Jan. 28.
Also working in Virginia’s favor is a scheduling quirk. The Cavaliers are done with Duke and play North Carolina, Syracuse and Pittsburgh (the latter two are the conference leaders right now) just once. Beyond that is a mix of games against teams like Maryland, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Miami that should all be winnable for this Virginia team.
Because of Virginia’s great rally late Monday and then the timely (most would argue lucky) shots that Duke hit late, the Cavaliers will definitely be stinging for a couple days over not getting a rare win in Durham. But as long as head coach Tony Bennett is able to get Virginia refocused on the games ahead and UVA takes advantage of the schedule they were given, the Cavaliers are still going to be a force to be reckoned with at the top of the ACC throughout the season.