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Virginia’s win at Duke proves it’s time to believe in the Cavaliers

Like it or not, Tony Bennett’s team is for real.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It shouldn’t be a “hot take” to state on the final Saturday of January that the No. 2 team in the country, which also happens to be the lone undefeated team in arguably the toughest conference in all of college basketball, is a legitimate national title contender.

When the team in question is Virginia, though, that seems to change things. Virginia seems to change everything.

The Cavaliers have been the ACC’s top regular-season performer for the past six seasons. No team in college basketball’s most accomplished conference owns a better league record at home or on the road over that time span than UVA does.

Multiple ACC teams have had more success in the ACC tournament, however, and therein lies the problem.

In 2014, Virginia dominated the ACC and captured both the league’s regular season and tournament titles. The Cavaliers earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it suffered an unexpected Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State. The Spartans played the part of UVA’s foil again a year later, knocking off the second-seed and repeat ACC regular-season champs in the second round.

For a brief hour or so in late March of 2016, it seemed like “getting over the hump” was a phrase head coach Tony Bennett would thankfully be rid of forever. Then his latest top-seeded team completely unraveled in the final two minutes of a stunning 68-62 loss to No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Midwest Regional final. Virginia’s most recent appearance in the dance ended with an embarrassing 65-39 loss to No. 4 seed Florida in the second round.

America has resigned itself not to be fooled again, but the 2017-18 Cavaliers have upped the ante when it comes to their powers of pre-March persuasion.

At 20-1, Virginia owns the best overall record in college basketball. The Hoos are 9-0 in the ACC and own a two-game advantage over the rest of the conference. They lead the nation in scoring defense and rank second in field-goal percentage defense.

The new top bullet point on UVA’s “doubt us at your own peril” resume came Saturday afternoon in Durham. Despite seeing a 10-point halftime advantage disappear in a matter of minutes, Virginia gutted out a 65-63 road win over No. 4 Duke. It was the program’s first win at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 23 years.

The first-half performance was Virginia at its finest. The Cavaliers completely controlled the pace, executed their trademark efficient halfcourt offense, and held Duke — the nation’s top offensive team and widely believed to be the most talented squad in the country — to just 22 points in 20 minutes.

The second half looked like a foreshadowing of what America expects to see from Bennett’s team in March. It also looked a lot like what we’ve seen in past Duke-Virginia games.

In 2015, Duke scored 34 points in the first 30 minutes against Virginia and then rolled to victory by dropping 35 in the final 10 minutes. Last season, UVA’s famous pack-line defense limited the Blue Devils to 21 first half points but allowed them to explode for 44 after the break.

Recent history appeared poised to repeat itself as Duke scoring 19 of the second half’s first 26 points and completely wiped away Virginia’s double-digit halftime lead in less than six minutes. The home team’s second-half success was based more on defensive adjustments than it was an increase in comfort with UVA’s own defensive style.

After the break, Mike Krzyzewski moved to a 2-3 zone that wasn’t exactly suffocating but was certainly effective. The Blue Devils dared guys like Isaiah Wilkins and De’Andre Hunter to expose the soft middle of their defense while paying primary attention to keeping the guard trio of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Devon Hall from lighting it up from the outside or getting to the rim off the dribble. The Cavaliers missed 11 of their first 14 shots out of the locker room, allowing Duke to seize control.

After this initial flurry, the script failed to go according to plan for a Duke team that entered Saturday’s game as a 3.5-point favorite. Virginia let Hunter float around more in the middle of the Blue Devils’ zone and worked to get big guys Mamadi Diakite and Jack Salt chances to challenge Duke’s vaunted front court at the rim. When that strategy began to work consistently, it reopened the perimeter looks that Guy and Jerome had been getting earlier in the game.

With under a minute to go and UVA clinging to a 60-58 lead, it was an extremely un-Virginia shot by Jerome that put the team’s biggest win of the season to date on ice.

It was a fitting moment given the very un-Virginia style in which the Cavaliers had arrived at the position where they could be playing college basketball’s highest-profile game on a late Saturday in January.

Sure, Virginia still wins games the same way it always has — Duke hadn’t been held to fewer than 78 points before the Cavs kept them at 63 on Saturday — but this was a team that wasn’t supposed to be able to play Bennett’s way and have any high degree of success. They lost too many players to graduation and to transfer for that to be the case. It’s why UVA wasn’t ranked in either major preseason poll, and why they were picked to finish sixth in the conference they’ve spent so much time dominating recently.

We all probably should have known better. But could our next collective mistake be buying into the notion that this Virginia team is going to be the one that plays its way to the final weekend of the season? Perhaps, but the Cavaliers are making it hard not to believe.

For all the success he’s had against the rest of the ACC, Bennett had been just 2-9 against Duke heading into Saturday’s showdown, and he had never beaten the Blue Devils in front of the Cameron Crazies. Maybe this is the year that all of Bennett’s previously challenging hurdles finally get cleared.