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By Brendan Prunty
February 02, 2015

Rarely can you call a game on Feb. 2 a "must-win" game. Rarely can you call a game for a one-loss team -- coming off that one loss, by the way -- a "must-win" game. Rarely can you call a game on the road at the No. 12 team in the country, for the No. 3 team in the country, a "must-win."

And yet, here was where Virginia stood on Monday night.

A bit of hyperbole? Maybe. But not by much. At least, not after the way it was humbled in the final minutes of a Saturday night loss against Duke. Yet somehow you got the feeling that at North Carolina on Monday night, 36 hours removed from that Duke loss, was going to say more about the Cavaliers than their previous 20 games did. Virginia was going to make a statement in Chapel Hill, no doubt. But what exactly would that be?

How about: Puh-lease.

"Must-win"? Okay, sure. The final score over North Carolina was a respectable 75-64, but it was hardly that close. Virginia led by almost 20 late in the game, carved up the Tar Heels who tried to go the Duke route defensively, with a 2-3 zone -- and most importantly didn't let one loss turn into two.

That might be even bigger than the victory.

In the ACC, one loss can turn into two (and three, four and so on) quite easily. The sheen was now off the Cavaliers. Someone had hung a loss on Virginia, broken the supposedly unbreakable defense and cobbled together a blueprint for others to copy. With North Carolina, Louisville and North Carolina State in its next three, Virginia had to put the armor back on, and do it quickly.

Kentucky was expected to be making the turn toward Valentine's Day without a loss to its name. Virginia? This was uncharted water. Yes, Tony Bennett's team made it to the Sweet 16 last year, but running the table just wasn't synonymous with the 'Hoos. So, after losing to Duke on Saturday night, the questions finally came to the surface.

The way that the Blue Devils attacked the heart of Virginia's identity, its defense, late in the game allowed some doubt to creep in.

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Virginia led by six points with 3:42 left to play on Saturday night.

It lost by six, with Duke scoring 11 unanswered points to finish the game.

It trailed by one at halftime in Chapel Hill, but was shooting over 50 percent. And in the second half, as North Carolina tried to use a 2-3 zone to flummox Virginia, the Cavaliers showed that they had learned a thing or two from the Duke loss. They were patient once more, working for shots instead of settling for them.

And of course, let their defense put a lackluster Tar Heel squad into a sleeper hold.

With 3:42 to go on Monday night, Virginia had equaled its scoring output from the first half (32 points) and led by 16 points.

Not bad. This is exactly what Virginia needed to do.

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Sometimes being among the last remaining undefeated teams so deep into a season can lead to losing streaks once the first 'L' is hung on the schedule. Last year, Syracuse started 25-0, then lost five of its last seven to finish the regular season. Two years ago, Duke started 15-0, before losing two of its next three. And the year before that, Louisville started 12-0, before losing five of its next seven games.

So, with a team like Virginia having finally seen its armor dented, a response was needed. The game at North Carolina couldn't just be a win, it needed to be convincing. To show that the first 20 games it played weren't somehow a fluke, that Duke hadn't discovered an Achilles heel -- just shot better and played better defense over the final three minutes of the game.

The challenges won't stop obviously. Louisville's pace and athleticism with Montrezl Harrell will present an issue. And the road trip to Raleigh against the Wolfpack, who played Virginia to 10 points on the road a month ago, will be no picnic either.

It's the ACC. Virginia didn't expect the road to be easy.

At least now though, it can have restored confidence that the directions to the finish line aren't flawed.

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