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Leitao's team has come a long way

February 2, 2007 12:50 am

CHARLOTTESVILLE--They've made substantial progress in Dave Leitao's two seasons as head coach. They actually won back-to-back Atlantic Coast Conference road games last month--something no Virginia team had done in seven years.

But until their gutty, 68-66 overtime victory over Duke last night, the Cavaliers hadn't actually arrived as ACC contenders.

"For this program, and where we're trying to go, this is obviously a huge win," Leitao said. "The grit they something I'm most proud about."

Before last night, the Cavaliers hadn't beaten the Blue Devils in five years, and they might never get a better chance than they had at John Paul Jones Arena. The eighth-ranked Blue Devils start two freshmen and two sophomores. Virginia has arguably the best starting backcourt in the ACC (if not the nation) Singletary and senior J.R. Reynolds.

No current Virginia player had ever beaten Duke, and last night's overtime affair might have marked the last chance for seniors Reynolds and Jason Cain (and possibly Singletary, who's looking more and more like an NBA draft early entry candidate each week).

Reynolds was brilliant, pushing himself to the limit, until cramps left him unable to move. That's when Singletary took over, nailing the game-winning shot with 1.0 seconds remaining.

Said Kryzewski: "Their guards are sensational."

Just as in football, this isn't a marquee season for the ACC. Aside from second-ranked North Carolina, there isn't a team with the talent to be a Final Four favorite.

The Cavaliers, still trying to live down a dreadful holiday tournament trip to Puerto Rico, are hoping to crash the ACC's top four and reach the NCAA tournament. They fell just short in key non-conference games against Purdue and Stanford.

Last night, they took a major step toward that goal.

How badly did the Cavaliers want this one? Desperately eager to break through against the Devils, both Singletary and Reynolds forced up a couple of early ill-advised shots against a defense designed specifically to stop them. Singletary was so keyed-up that Leitao actually sat him briefly after the first TV time-out to calm him.

The Cavaliers now have won five straight ACC games (the last two against ranked opponents), and their confidence has grown with each. They're tougher than they've been since early in Jeff Jones' tenure, and they now believe in themselves. Never under Pete Gillen would they have had the resolve to erase a 16-point deficit, as they did last Sunday at Clemson.

"We were mentally tougher on a couple of possessions," Leitao said--and when was the last time a Virginia coach could say that about Duke?

Last night's win didn't come easily. Virginia fell behind by 13 in the first half. That's usually not a daunting deficit to the Cavaliers, who dropped 103 on Maryland a couple of weeks ago and 93 on Arizona. But Duke isn't your ordinary opponent.

Even without the star power of their illustrious predecessors, these Blue

Devils can play defense. They allow just 56 points a game, fourth-best in the nation. This may be one of Mike Krzyewski's best coaching jobs--and that's saying something.

Virginia's upcoming schedule is forgiving; the Cavaliers (14-6) don't play UNC, Duke or Boston College again during the regular season. They now believe they can win every game, and four more victories should get them into the NCAA tournament for the first time in four seasons.

None will be bigger than last night's.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-

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