Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: UVa didn't win against Duke, but nor did it wilt

DURHAM, N.C. - The fight-or-flight moment for Virginia on Thursday occurred with 9:34 to play. The Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd was standing, roaring. The Duke lead was expanding. The Cavaliers' upset bid was disappearing.

What happened from that point on told us more about the Cavs than anything that has come before it this season.

Here's what it told us: This team is atmosphere-proof.

You know the black-and-white result by now. The Cavs lost the game. They had two shots in the final seconds to tie it, missed them both and headed into a weeklong break stinging from a 61-58 loss to No. 8 Duke.

The players were disappointed, as you would imagine.

"Most people don't come in this building expecting to win," said UVa forward Mike Scott, who had 23 points and nine rebounds. "We came here expecting to win."

Sure they did. But the more common occurrence here, in a place where Duke has now won 44 straight games, is that the road team is expected to wilt.

It didn't happen.

In the same arena where a six-point halftime lead dissolved into a 16-point loss last season, the Cavaliers did not flinch. UVa, trailing by nine with 9:34 to play, steeled itself on defense, stayed aggressive on offense and gave itself a chance to win in its first - and most daunting - ACC road test.

"In the huddles and during media timeouts, guys were talking about how this is not the same team as last year," said guard Joe Harris, sitting in the same locker room where he talked extensively about Duke's aura last season. "We're not backing down. Regardless if we're down eight, nobody's hanging their heads, and we're going to play until the buzzer sounds tonight. I feel like we did that and just came up a little bit short."

On the scoreboard, yes. But when it comes to poise and composure? The Cavs succeeded, and that's how this matchup is best judged.

To me, walking into Cameron Indoor Stadium always feels like walking into a church. Not in a metaphorical way - enough ink has been spilled about how this is a "basketball cathedral" - but in its actual physical appearance, and the manner in which the building immediately advances upon your senses.

All the woodwork reminds me of pews. The musty smell reminds me of an old hymnal sitting in a rack. They even hand out bulletins to the faithful - here, they call those "cheer sheets" - to help direct the proceedings.

Churches can be intimidating, particularly if you're new. Do I stand now? Sit? Kneel? Bow? Pray? Sing? While so many of the arenas in the ACC have gone posh and antiseptic, Duke's building still succeeds in making the visiting team feel like an outsider.

Combine that with the Blue Devils' talent - they always have that - and the mini-runs that happen in almost every basketball game can disorient and, ultimately, destroy the upset-minded road team.

That could have happened to UVa on Thursday. Probably should have happened. The fact that it didn't says something about what coach Tony Bennett is doing in Charlottesville.

"Last year, the same thing happened," Scott said. "They threw a knockout punch and basically ran away with it. This year, in those first 10 minutes of the second half, they threw some jabs, but we were able to counter that and get back into the game."

Scott is the sleepy-eyed ringleader, a superstar who's been through enough big games that he doesn't seem to feel the pressure. But calm, too, were the UVa freshmen - Paul Jesperson, Malcolm Brogdon, Darion Atkins - who proved that they could handle performing under the bright lights.

"I feel like we competed, and I feel good about where we are," point guard Jontel Evans said. "It can only get better from here."

Given their response Thursday with 9:34 to play, it's hard to disagree.

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