By Jeff White
CANCUN, Mexico — A date with mighty Kentucky beckoned. To battle on the big stage with fifth-ranked UK, however, the UVa men’s basketball team first needed to get past Stanford.
It didn’t happen. The Cavaliers, in a disappointing performance, lost 57-52 to the Cardinal in the Cancun Challenge on Tuesday night. And so they’re headed not for a showdown with a member of college basketball royalty, but a consolation-game matchup with Cleveland State.
The Wahoos (3-2) meet the Vikings (3-2) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. (Eastern).
“It’s very disappointing,” Virginia sophomore Sylven Landesberg said in the nearly empty gym at the Moon Palace Resort.
“It was going to be a chance to play against a ranked team, a top team in the country, and see where we stood against them. It hurts, just losing period. If we’d lost to anybody, no matter who we would have played next, it would have hurt, but I think it hurts a little more that we don’t get to play the supposedly best team in the tournament.”
Before a crowd dominated by blue-clad fans, Kentucky ran past Cleveland State 73-49 on Tuesday. About 30 minutes later, with most of those fans having gone elsewhere, UVa and Stanford tipped off in an atmosphere noticeably devoid of energy.
The ‘Hoos struggled for much of the game, but the Cardinal (3-2) wasn’t much better. And with 4:52 remaining, junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan hit two free throws to give Virginia a 47-46 lead.
One hundred twenty-eight seconds later, UVa trailed by eight.
His team’s defensive lapses are likely to give first-year coach Tony Bennett nightmares. Virtually uncontested layups by Jarrett Mann and Jeremy Green put Stanford up 50-47, and then Landry Fields scored inside to make it a five-point game. Green followed with a 3-pointer — Stanford’s eighth of the game — to all but dash UVa’s hopes of victory.
Virginia rallied late and pulled to 55-52, but Fields, the best player on the court, ended the suspense. The 6-7, 210-pound senior sank two free throws with 10.7 seconds left to seal the win for Stanford.
Fields finished with 25 points and 13 rebounds, six of which came at the offensive end. He also had three assists and three steals.
During one stretch early in the second half, Fields scored first over the 6-6 Landesberg and then over the 6-4 Farrakhan inside. Bennett put 6-8 junior Mike Scott on Fields, who promptly made a 3-pointer.
“He knows how to play,” said Bennett, who as Washington State’s coach saw Fields regularly. “He lets the game come [to him]. Just a solid player who has continued to improve throughout his career. We did not have an answer for him. That’s why we had to trap him in the post.”
Landesberg said: “He’s a big guard, real strong, and he can do a lot of things. If we switched off and put a little guy on him, he just posted him up. Put a bigger guy on him, he took him off the dribble.”
The box score reveals that the Cardinal shot only 38.9 percent from the floor. But nobody who watched the game came away thinking the ‘Hoos had played good defense, especially in the final 5 minutes.
“There was a stretch late that really hurt us,” Bennett said, “and that’s when your defense has to rally, and it has to have a mentality, ‘We are going to get a stop,’ or ‘They’re going to have to make a really tough shot to get a bucket.’ And that didn’t happen.”
UVa’s offense broke down repeatedly as well. The Cavaliers shot 37.8 percent from the floor, had more turnovers (13) than assists (10), missed 14 of 18 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, and went 14 for 24 from the line.
“Too many breakdowns,” Bennett said. “You look at the offensive rebounds that cost us, the missed free throws, the little things that have to be in place, that you have to execute to have a chance. And when you don’t, you will not win.
“We have to do it together. We don’t have enough individual talent just to get it done, and we didn’t.”
Virginia, which led 31-30 at the break, didn’t make a field goal in the second half until point guard Sammy Zeglinski passed to Landesberg for a fast-break layup with 11:36 to play. That cut the Cardinal’s lead to 41-38.
“Our offense still dictates how we play, and we gotta change that,” Landesberg said. “The games that we did win, we dictated the game on the defensive end. Today, we weren’t hitting our shots, and that decided who we were going to be today and caused us to get this loss.”
Landesberg scored 16 points, one fewer than junior guard Jeff Jones, who made a game-high four treys. Jones started in place Farrakhan — who sat out the first half as a result of what Bennett called a “coach’s decision — and scored 14 points before intermission.
“Jeff hit some shots on the offensive end that kept us going,” Bennett said. “He’s a very good shooter, and we’ll need that. I just want him to keep working defensively, but he actually got a couple steals for us early, so he gave us a nice lift when we were struggling.”
Jones said: “I just tried to give my team a push when I thought they needed it. But we gotta play better defense and be mentally tougher going into the game. That’s what beat us.”
Senior center Jerome Meyinsse grabbed a season-high eight rebounds for UVa. Scott led the Cavaliers with nine boards but had four turnovers and only seven points.
Virginia won’t win many games when its top low-post threat doesn’t score in double figures, but Scott wasn’t the only player who struggled. Zeglinski was 1 for 5 from the floor. Backup point guard Calvin Baker was 0 for 3, and Farrakhan was 0 for 2, with three turnovers.
In two Cancun Challenge games played in the United States last week, Stanford lost at home to Oral Roberts, and UVa crushed ORU at John Paul Jones Arena.
After the game in Charlottesville, Oral Roberts coach Scott Sutton said Virginia had more talent than Stanford, but that superiority wasn’t evident Tuesday night.
“Disappointing,” Bennett said. “It’ll be more of the same if we don’t come with a better approach tomorrow with our effort level.”