CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Long after the ESPN production truck stopped buzzing and the students had shed their bright orange GameDay shirts, the only things still upright in John Paul Jones arena late Saturday night were the music stands of the Virginia band.
The Cavaliers had been knocked down, too, having lost their first game of the season, and the shock absorbed by most of the 14,593 fans who had been in attendance still hadn’t worn off after Duke’s 69-63 win. Virginia's quest for perfection didn't end on a game-winner at the buzzer. It didn't end because of a questionable call. And it didn't end because the Cavs played badly or choked. It just ended.
Walking out in a crowd full of people still shaking their heads, one female fan turned to her husband and said, “There’s nothing to be mad about. We lost fair and square.”
This was George R.R. Martin finally deciding to kill off another popular character in one of his books. There was no malice involved. Apparently, it was just time for the Cavaliers to lose.
Watching the Blue Devils bury three-pointer after three-pointer to close out the game against Virginia was odd to see, though, and it might have been for Duke too. The Devils missed their first nine attempts from deep before hitting six of their last eight. They scored on 14 of their last 15 possessions. That sort of execution felt like just that -- an execution, and the guillotine dropped down on the Cavaliers with a hushed quiet when Duke freshman Tyus Jones delivered the final blow, a three with 11 seconds remaining for the final points of the game.
“It took a little bit out of me at the end,” Justin Anderson, Virginia's star junior guard, said after the game. “My stomach is still hurting.”
There’s no time for mourning, however. Not only does Virginia, now ranked No. 3 in the nation, play at No. 12 North Carolina on Monday, but it returns home to face No. 9 Louisville on Saturday. The Tar Heels are also coming off a gut-wrenching loss, having blown an 18-point second-half lead and lost to the Cardinals on the road on Saturday.
To start a new winning streak, the Cavaliers will have to get back to playing the kind of suffocating defense that carried them to a 19-0 start. Virginia has held opponents to 35 percent shooting from the field this season, second only to No. 1 Kentucky's 32.6 percent, but the Cavs allowed the Blue Devils to shoot 50.9 percent on Saturday. Virginia also gave up 14 fast break points to Duke after allowing just 31 all season, and the Devils' effective field goal percentage of 56.3 is far above the 40.7 Cavs opponents have managed for the year as a whole.
That defensive performance may thus be more an aberration than anything else, and it is why Virginia needn't worry too much about the loss. Virginia can now recognize what went wrong against the Blue Devils and learn it must do to avoid losing, which might be as important as all the work it had already done to learn how to win.
The Cavaliers can’t get caught flat-footed in transition. They can’t give up second-chance points. And they certainly can’t allow a team to hit five threes again down the stretch when their own offense goes 2-of-8 in the final four-plus minutes of the game.
“We’re upset about the right things,” Anderson said. “Nobody’s pointing fingers or thinking they should do more or less. We understand it’s a collective thing. We’re fine.”
Virginia still leads the ACC at 7-1, keeping a second-straight conference regular season title and No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament well within reach. If those things comes to pass, a trip to nearby Charlotte and a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAAs are likely as well. But a loss to the Tar Heels would drop Virginia into a three-way tie for No. 1 in the league standings with half the ACC schedule yet to be played.
That means the next two games will provide the real test of whether there were any real aftershocks to the loss in Charlottesville.