Duke’s defense and length too much for Cavaliers in ACC title game

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: The Atlantic Coast Conference

GREENSBORO, N.C. — We all saw it coming. For those who have closely observed ACC basketball throughout the season, it was obvious that a very young Duke basketball team got better and better as the season grinded away.

The question, or in some cases, doubt, was whether a rookie coach as in 35-year-old Jon Scheyer could steadily bring another collection of One-and-Dones along to peak at just the right time. Saturday night, Scheyer proved to the college basketball world that his mission had been accomplished as Duke jumped on Virginia early, held off every Cavaliers’ charge, and survived for a 59-49 ACC Tournament championship.

It was the physical rock fight expected, smothering defense for the most part. If offense was your bag, you should have looked elsewhere.

In the end, Scheyer put together a strategic game plan that stood up for 40 minutes against one of America’s most challenging teams to prepare for in a short period of time. Guiding the Blue Devils to a 26-8 record, Scheyer accomplished something only three coaches in the historic ACC have ever done: won the ACC Tournament in his first try, joining Duke’s Vic Bubas in 1960 and Carolina’s Bill Guthridge in ‘98.

While there’s much more basketball to be played, Scheyer could destroy the myth of “never follow a legend,” if his Devils continue the momentum of a nine-game winning streak.

Virginia’s Tony Bennett, now owner of the prestigious league’s second-oldest tenure at 14 seasons after the planned departure of Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and the sudden departure of Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, threw tons of defense into the face of the Blue Devils in the title tilt, but it wasn’t enough. Bennett didn’t pack enough offense in the travel bags, making it painful at times for Wahoo fans to bear.

The Cavaliers shot an anemic 6 of 22 (27.1 percent) from the field in the first half and trailed 24-17, a season low and matching the lowest halftime score in the history of the ACC finals. Still, UVA (25-7) wasn’t out of it. A nice run or a 3-point spree would have put Bennett’s team right back into the thick of things.

Due to a tenacious Duke defense, nothing ever materialized for the Cavaliers offensively. The Devils, boasting two effective 7-footers in Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively, keyed on shutting down Virginia’s Jayden Gardner, coming off back-to-back double-doubles in the tournament, holding him to seven points and only nine field-goal attempts.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers, one of the nation’s best teams in not turning the ball over, suffered a dozen turnovers, only slightly less than their 16 made field goals. UVA couldn’t make up the difference from long range either, as its perimeter shooters were only 4 of 17 for the night, led by Isaac McKneely and Armaan Franklin with two each.

Other than McKneely’s 10 points, the only other Cavalier in double figures was Reece Beekman with 12 on a 5-of-11 shooting night.

“Their length and athleticism was real and I think at times it sped us up, and we were at times a little bit uncharacteristic or a bit rushed,” Bennett said afterward.

That unto itself was unusual to hear Bennett say because it is rare for any opponent to speed up the deliberate-paced Cavaliers. Bennett praised Duke’s defense, noting that is the part of the Blue Devils’ game that has progressed the most over the course of the season, something difficult for a freshman-based program to develop.

“I think they sat down and guarded, we sat down and tried to guard hard, and there just wasn’t a whole lot there,” Bennett said.

Duke’s plan was to attack the rim early and often and that’s exactly what they Blue Devils did, bolting to a 6-0 lead with upperclassman guard Jeremy Roach driving for two layups to go along with a Filipowski dunk. Those were the two biggest thorns in Virginia’s saddle throughout the game, with Roach leading the way with 23 points.

If anyone showed a bigger reversal in performance from the first meeting, a controversial overtime by Virginia in Charlottesville, it was Filipowski, who went from zero to 20. He didn’t scratchin 45 minutes at UVA, but made 8 of 17 shots and pulled down 10 rebounds in Saturday’s championship.

“Yeah, obviously I had probably one of my worst games of the year at Virginia,” Filipowski said. “And just personally going into this game, obviously there was a little more of a chip on my shoulder, just being able to show what I’m capable of against this team.”

Still, Duke had more than just revenge on its mind. It was playing for a championship for its young coach, who replaced legendary Mike Krzyzewski.

“We’ve just grown and grown throughout the whole season, and what’s special for me in this tournament, we played three really good teams, but also three different styles (Pitt, Miami, UVA),” Scheyer said. “To prepare for Virginia in 24 hours and to defend them the way that we did, it’s a credit to these guys and their focus and their fight on the defensive end.”

Every time Virginia made a run toward closing Duke’s gap in the second half, the Devils answered. The closes the Cavaliers came was with only 44 seconds to play when Beekman scored on a driving layup that cut it to 53-49, but Duke answered with a couple of free throws and it was game over.

Most of the evening, when Beekman or Gardner would get into the paint, Duke was waiting with its length. Virginia, obviously disturbed by that length, managed to make only 8 of 16 layup attempts in the contest and finished shooting 33 percent.

The Wahoos will now wait until Sunday’s NCAA Tournament pairings show to learn their fate for next week’s event.