Here are four things we saw during the game: two good, two not so good.
Good: This team is mentally tough
When a thirteen-point halftime lead evaporates in less than six minutes, on the road, in an arena where your team hasn’t won in more than two decades, against an opponent you’ve only beaten three times in the last fifteen years—that’s a moment that checks the mettle of any team.
Virginia found themselves in precisely that spot at the 14:20 mark of the second half. A Duke offense that couldn't hit anything for twenty minutes suddenly couldn't miss. And the exact opposite was happening whenever UVA touched the ball. Any Virginia fan—heck, any ACC fan—can tell you what comes next so often when you’re playing Duke: their athletes run, their shooters drop bombs, and you limp home with a big fat L.
Not these Hoos, and not today. Whether it was Ty Jerome’s dagger or Kyle Guy’s cucumber-cool free throws, Virginia demonstrated it had the guts to power through and pick up one of the bigger wins of Tony Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville.
Bad: Zone defenses give this team fits
So why did that lead go away so fast? The 2-3 zone that Duke dropped into after halftime completely threw UVA out of its rhythm—and the defense suffered as a result. It’s a phenomenon Virginia fans have seen before.
Best any ACC offense has done against Virginia is still Syracuse: 1.06 points per trip. Duke slides in at second: 0.97.— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) January 27, 2018
Isaiah Wilkins’ sudden inability to hit elbow jumpers was a big part of the slump, and you have to expect that is a foible that won’t happen every time out. Bennett also did a good job of rotating ball handlers and other shooters into the soft spot at the free-throw line, which is when the Hoos started breaking down Duke’s defense.
But if you’re an opposing coach, and a 2-3 zone is in your defensive arsenal, you’ve got to be looking at rolling it out early and often when you play UVA. And don’t look now, but a return visit to the Carrier Dome looms on the Hoos’ schedule in just one week.
Good: DeAndre Hunter continues to be a difference maker
DeAndre Hunter was one of those guys who took over from Wilkins. His willingness to put the ball on the floor against Duke’s bigs led to several easy layups. For seven minutes in the second half, Hunter alone was responsible for more than half of UVA’s points as a team.
His combination of length, speed, and strength allowed Bennett to throw multiple defensive looks at the Blue Devils at the other end of the court. Hunter may be one of the most valuable ball-screen defenders in the program, since he can either hedge and stick on the ball handler or switch and play inside against a screening big who rolls back to the hoop. His continued development may be the barometer for where Virginia’s ceiling will be for the next several years.
Bad: DeAndre Hunter sprained his ankle
Be honest: you thought the game was over when Hunter rolled off the side of Wendell Carter, Jr.’s foot, didn't you? The guy who had been The Answer to Duke in the second half could barely put weight on his right leg, and Ethan Saliba had to put what looked like ten rolls of tape on him just to get Hunter back to the bench.
Bennett gave a tentative confirmation of the injury during his postgame remarks.
Bennett said that De’Andre Hunter has an ankle sprain, per the team doctor.— Justin Ferber (@Justin_Ferber) January 27, 2018
Hunter’s health will be the topic of conversation around every Cavalier water cooler for the foreseeable future. (But at least it’s not his appendix?) Virginia’s odds at Syracuse may well turn on whether Hunter is back in the lineup.
For now, though, the bottom line is this: UVA’s ACC winning streak is alive, the losing streak in Durham is dead, and Virginia is two-and-a-half games clear of the next closest team in the conference standings. Enjoy that.