Virginia ends brutal ACC stretch with 'thoroughbred' response

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Malcolm Brogdon gave himself one day to stew.

Seven days ago, after Duke stunned unbeaten, No. 2-ranked Virginia in front of its own packed, buzzy "College Gameday" crowd, Brogdon was as upset as anyone in Charlottesville. He called the loss "shocking." He said Duke's comeback victory was "like a slap in the face." He hinted the Hoos could use a wake-up call, some new motivation after a cruise-control 20-0 start. He vowed a resolute response.

But underneath it all, Brogdon was bummed. Of course he was. A loss like that? You can't discard it at the buzzer. It's bound to stick with you.

And it did. For exactly one day.

"The day after, whenever our next practice was, we had film," Brogdon said. "And after that it was over."

Was it ever. Two days after Tyus Jones snuffed the life out of John Paul Jones Arena, the Cavaliers handled North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Exactly seven days later, back on their home floor, Virginia held off No. 9 Louisville 52-47.

Saturday's win brought Virginia to 21-1 overall and, sure, following Notre Dame's loss at Duke Saturday, opened up a two-game space between the Cavaliers and Notre Dame, Duke, North Carolina and Louisville, the ferocious four-headed ACC monster still trying, and failing, to derail this Virginia train. But perhaps more impressive is the short-term accomplishment: Saturday also capped the most pivotal three-game stretch of Virginia's season, one of the most difficult any team will play anywhere in 2014-15 -- and the first time UVa has faced three straight top-15 opponents since 1997 -- with a 2-1 record.

That the stretch opened with a legendary gut-punch loss only makes it more impressive. After absorbing not only its first defeat but a startling disappointment, Tony Bennett's team had less than two days to prepare for a road game against a UNC team that had, save a late collapse at Louisville, spent two months playing its best basketball of the past two years. Then, on Saturday, the Cavaliers were back at the scene of the crime to play the Cardinals, a team itself riding the high of a comeback win at UNC, getting huge offensive numbers from Terry Rozier, and drawing praise for its developing chemistry from chronically unimpressed coach Rick Pitino.

Right on cue, Virginia unveiled maybe its finest defensive half of the season -- no small feat in a season built atop the bones of vanquished offenses.

The Cavaliers were brilliant and intelligent and comprehensive and everywhere all at once. They hedged every ball screen into oblivion, pushed Louisville's guards further and further away from the rim, and doubled star forward Montrezl Harrell almost out of the game entirely. Louisville shot 4-of-21 from the field in the first half, including 1-of-7 from 3. The Cardinals earned just four trips to the free throw line. They turned it over six times. They are themselves built on great defense, which is a nice way of saying their offense has major holes, but still: In 28 possessions, Louisville scored 13 points. It was a clinic.

"Their defense is awesome," Pitino said. "I won't take anything away from them, but our offense was ridiculous. We just didn't run our sets. We didn't move the ball. If you do that you're going to make Virginia look like the best defensive team in the history of the game."

Pitino considers himself an admirer of Virginia's defensive togetherness, to the point that six weeks ago, he showed his own top-five defensive group film of UVa's defense that he described as "on a string moving with the ball."

And he was right: Once Louisville settled down in the second half, and began to run sustained offensive sets, it was able to grind its way to the rim. Indeed, for a minute there, Virginia's night had the makings of a painful cross between its own collapse against Duke and Louisville's inspired rally against UNC. Rozier and Jones got to the rim and finished through contact, occasionally in spectacular fashion. Wayne Blackshear's 3s helped close a double-digit lead midway through the second half. With less than two minutes to play, Harrell turned his own blocked shot into a fast-break alley-oop on the other end -- a play that looked almost identical to last Saturday's comeback-defining smash against the Tar Heels.

That made it 47-43 with 90 seconds to play. Louisville sank into its defensive press. The crowd couldn't help but tighten up. But Virginia, which managed to maintain its lead throughout, quickly provided a reminder of how, before this brutal eight days began last Saturday, it came to be 19-0 in the first place. Catching the ball over the top of the defense, Darion Atkins responded to Harrell's dunk with a decisive spin-move hook finish in the lane. Harrell scored again on the other end, but Brogdon's free throw opened the lead to five, and even the best play of Jones' day -- a whirling, hanging and-one finish with 18 seconds left -- couldn't get Louisville close enough to do anything but foul, and hope.

In the end, Virginia committed just two turnovers -- the fewest of Tony Bennett's UVa tenure and the fewest forced by Louisville in any of Pitino's 488 games at the school.

"I use this saying," Bennett said. "'When you whip a donkey, it kicks. When you whip a thoroughbred, it responds.' I'm not saying we got whipped against Duke, but we in some ways learned some valuable lessons and then we had to respond in a tough setting against Carolina. And then we had to come back, and I didn't want our guys to assume, 'Oh, OK, we're back on track.' No. You're going to have to scratch and scrap and fight for everything. And they responded."

Bennett's maxim may be tested again in the weeks to come. On Saturday, star wing Justin Anderson left the game with an injury to his shooting left hand. He didn't return, and spent the entire second half, hand wrapped, on the bench next to the team's trainer.

Update: Late Saturday night, Virginia announced that Anderson will miss 4 to 6 weeks with a fractured finger in his left hand. Before Bennett knew the extent of the injury he was "concerned he couldn't come back in." The challenge of this eight-day, once-in-two-decades, three-straight-top-15-teams stretch may pale by comparison to the challenge Virginia now faces without its player of the year candidate.

But after this week, would you bet against the Cavaliers? In a race full of donkeys, why bet against the thoroughbred?

"They responded, they played for each other," Bennett said. "And that's our way. We have good individual talent, and I said to them, 'When you guys are right and playing for each other, I'll take you against most anybody.'"