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Mike Lopresti | | February 8, 2022

Virginia, a team that once won the ultimate turnaround title, is looking for the ultimate turnaround season

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Who began the season by losing at home to Navy, the Midshipmen’s first win over a ranked team in nearly 36 years?

Who scored only 14 points in the first half and was knocked off at James Madison — a team that had never beaten an active ACC member in its history?

Who got run over by Houston by 20 points, after which the head coach said, “We got our ears pinned back?”

Who lost by 17 points at home to Clemson, the Tigers’ first win in the series in 12 meetings?

Who started Monday at No. 88 in the NET rankings, one spot below Towson, and hasn’t received a single vote in the Associated Press poll in 12 weeks?

Who suddenly looks to be riding on a trend arrow going up?

Virginia, to all the above.

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“What my guys don’t understand is these teams are fighting for NCAA bids,” Mike Krzyzewski said Monday night after the Cavaliers knocked off Duke 69-68 in the last 1.1 seconds. “Teams are hungry.”

The Cavaliers certainly are. Once 12-9 on the season and 6-5 in the ACC with NCAA Tournament chances growing ever more wobbly, Virginia has revived its hopes with three consecutive victories. Monday was the loudest statement yet. Certainly louder than the Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd, once Reece Beekman’s game-winning 3-pointer shushed them. “Hopefully we grew up in this game,” coach Tony Bennett said. “And we’ve certainly got a lot more left.

“We’re just trying to continue to improve.”

It was the kind of victory in a difficult place that can be a gateway to something good, for a team that might be finding itself. Here was Virginia winning with...

Defense. Mark Williams had 16 points for Duke. The rest of the Blue Devils starting lineup had 27. The much-heralded freshman trio of Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels were a combined 7-for-27 shooting.

Poise. The Cavaliers committed only five turnovers and outscored Duke 20-2 in points off turnovers.

Precision. Virginia scored 52 of its 69 points in the paint.

Dramatics. Beekman is the same Cavalier who beat Syracuse at the buzzer in the 2021 ACC Tournament. “Just another big shot, and I hit it,” he said. So it goes in this series. Six of the past eight meetings have been decided by one or two points.

That’s a pretty impressive combination to bring into Cameron against a Duke team on a roll.

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“You have a tendency sometimes to make this bigger than it is when you come in here,” Bennett said, “because it’s an unbelievable atmosphere, you grow up watching it, you know how talented their team is, Coach K, all of that.

“We just said be laser focused at the start and play our game. Get it to our kind of game if we can, and battle.”

The Cavaliers were not always successful earlier in getting contests to their kind of games. Inconsistency was an issue. From a Nov. 29 one-point setback at home against Iowa to a Jan. 29 defeat at Notre Dame, Virginia went 7-7, nearly alternating wins and losses.

Time was needed for the new lineup to meld. It seems as if guard Kihei Clark has been in Charlottesville since Thomas Jefferson, but the top three scorers from last season were gone. Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin were fresh arrivals from East Carolina and Indiana. Beekman, Francisco Caffaro and Kadin Shedrick were back but they have averaged only 8.4 points combined last season.

Virginia’s defense would have to be replenished and ways to win developed. It has been a work in progress. Even now, the opponents’ 42.4 field goal percentage would be the highest the Cavaliers have allowed in 11 years. As is customary, that defense has to be sound because Virginia will rarely beat anyone in a track meet. The Cavaliers are 324th in the nation in scoring. Then again, they were only 209th the season they won the national championship.

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So it’s taken patience, but with a growing sense of urgency.

Bennett after Houston thumped the Cavaliers early: “Now we figure it out. That’s all you can do.”

After a loss at North Carolina State dropped them to 5-4 in the league: “We have to turn it around quick, for sure.”

Maybe they have. Beating Miami by 13 points Saturday was a good sign. After that one, Bennett received a text from his father and veteran coach Dick Bennett. “He just simply said lace them up and do it again.”

That’s what the Cavaliers did. “Great momentum for us,” Beekman said at Duke. They’ll need it. They’ll soon face a make-or-break stretch of going to Miami, a home rematch with Duke and Florida State, all in eight days. It’s February, and Virginia — in every NCAA Tournament since 2014 — is one of those teams in need of a strong closing argument.

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