CHARLOTTESVILLE ——Though Virginia coach Tony Bennett preaches improvement and taking steps forward regardless of the outcome, it's hard to view Wednesday as anything other than regression.
The outmanned Cavaliers, often competitive even in defeat, exhibited little offensive rhythm or pulse in a 56-41 loss to a Duke team that was nowhere near its best, either.
The Cavaliers (12-13, 3-8 ACC) did neither, shooting 28.6 percent from the field and scoring just 15 points in the second half.
Akil Mitchell's dunk with 26 seconds remaining pushed the Cavaliers over the 40-point plateau. But the score still marked the program's lowest output since a 63-41 loss to Duke in the 1998 ACC tournament — the final game of the Jeff Jones era.
Mustapha Farrakhan (11 points) was Virginia's only double-figure scorer, though he struggled from the field (4-for-14) and committed five of the Cavaliers' 12 turnovers.
Duke's 56 points were a season-low and 28 points fewer than its scoring average. All-conference forward Kyle Singler was a non-factor, battling foul trouble and scoring a season-low two points.
"I probably would have thought we'd win the game," Virginia guard Jontel Evans said, when asked what he thought the Cavaliers' chances were with those two factors. "I didn't think we (were) going to lose by double digits, but if you hold them to 56 points and one of their best players to two points, you should be neck-and-neck in the game with a chance to win it. But things didn't end up that way."
Nolan Smith led the Blue Devils (24-2, 11-1 ACC) with 22 points and seemed to hit every shot his team needed.
Duke big men Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly helped compensate for Singler's off night, combining for 20 points on 9-for-12 shooting, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
Wednesday's game unfolded far differently than the first meeting between the two teams Jan. 15 in Durham. The Blue Devils overcame a double-figure deficit in the first half and a nine-point deficit in the second half, running away in the last 12 minutes for a 76-60 win.
This time, Duke used a 10-0 run midway through the first half to open a 23-15 lead. The Blue Devils were never headed, and Virginia barely challenged offensively after that.
Much like the first meeting, the Cavaliers had no answer for Smith. The ACC's leading scorer took multiple defenders off the dribble and hit enough jump shots to keep the Cavs honest.
"I told the guys," Bennett said, "I believe you're better than what you showed. All the credit to Duke. That's a team that doesn't beat themselves. Certainly Smith, when they need something, he kind of flexes.
"And they did show some toughness — we did physically, defensively, in the second half. But all that aside, that's tough because I thought that we would be better than that in that game and we weren't."