By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Sylven Landesberg slumped against the wall in the visitors’ locker room Monday night, struggling to make sense of the UVa men’s basketball team’s latest loss.
“I can’t even put my finger on it,” Landesberg said.
Tony Bennett was no less frustrated, but words came easier for the Cavaliers’ first-year coach at his postgame press conference.
Two nights earlier, his team had lost 61-55 to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. However poorly the Wahoos might have executed at Cassell Coliseum, however, especially on offense, their effort level was beyond reproach.
Not so at Comcast Center, where a raucous crowd of 17,091 saw Maryland shred UVa 85-66 in an ACC game that wasn’t that close.
Asked if fatigue might have contributed to his team’s dismal performance, Bennett swatted away that suggestion.
“That’s not an excuse for what we just put out there,” he said emphatically. “No way. We were flat. We weren’t who I thought we had to be. And I tell our guys, I can handle a loss, but not like that, and we have to respond. We have to respond.”
The Cavaliers (5-5, 14-9) have dropped three straight games, and their task gets no easier. They’re in the midst of a stretch in which they’ll play four times in eight days.
Game No. 3 comes Wednesday night, when Florida State (6-5, 18-7) visits John Paul Jones Arena. Then the ‘Hoos go back on the road, visiting Clemson on Saturday and Miami next Tuesday.
“It’ll certainly be a gut-check time,” Bennett said of the FSU game. “I wish I had the perfect answer. I don’t. I think we have to realize as a team that we can’t take anything for granted. If we’re not sharp in all areas, both sides of the floor, it gets hard for us. We’ve got a small margin of error, and when all of the sudden we don’t defend the way we have been defending, it can get out of hand.”
In the first half, the Terrapins (7-3, 17-7) looked as if they were running their offense against a high school team. Led by senior guard Greivis Vasquez, Maryland shot 70 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes.
Had he ever coached another team, Bennett was asked, that allowed an opponent to shoot such a high percentage in a half?
“If I did, I blocked it out,” he said with a weak smile. “I think I went to counseling to get out of my head if I did.”
Vasquez toyed with the ‘Hoos. Over the course of the game, Bennett tried Jontel Evans, Sammy Zeglinski, Mustapha Farrakhan and Landesberg on Maryland’s ACC-player-of-the-year candidate. None bothered Vasquez.
The 6-6 senior guard from Venezuela, whose flamboyance irritates opposing fans while delighting the Maryland faithful, went into the break with 25 points, on 10-for-13 shooting.
Vasquez finished with 30 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 blocked shot and no turnovers.
“He had his way,” Bennett said. “Nobody really could handle him. It’s gotta be done with our team defense, and that was lacking. There were so many holes in it tonight. Everything was a step slow. Even a simple ball screen we had trouble with.”
Maryland made its first four shots from the floor and didn’t cool off much after that. With 10:30 left in the first half, the Terps led 24-13, and a blowout seemed imminent.
UVa battled back behind reserve guard Jeff Jones, however, and scored eight straight points. The last six were by Jones, who hit a trey and then converted a three-point play to pull Virginia to 24-21 at the 9:04 mark.
“And then the floodgates opened,” Bennett said.
Vasquez’s backcourt mate, senior Eric Hayes, made a layup and was fouled by Virginia forward Mike Scott on the play. The personal was the second for Scott, who went to the bench.
Hayes added the free throw to complete the three-point play, and the Terrapins extended their lead to 14 before Scott, who’d re-entered at the 5:42 mark, scored to make it 35-23.
No stirring comeback followed. The Terps scored on 13 of their final 15 possessions in the first half and led 52-34 at the break. They weren’t as efficient offensively after intermission but still shot 56.3 percent from the floor for the game.
When a team falls behind, “it comes down to the little things,” Bennett said. “It really does. You have to be willing to put a body on someone to block out to finish the play. You have to be willing to jump the ball, help your teammate, talk on defense, make the extra pass when they’re loading up on you, just share the ball.
“I think we got a little panicky. We got down big and tried to get it back too quickly and lost our mentality of trying to battle possession by possession, and that thing got out of hand.”
Until Monday night, no opponent had shot better than 55.3 percent this season against UVa. It was also the Cavaliers’ largest margin of defeat under Bennett.
“We did not put the effort in defensively to be successful, and they picked us apart,” senior center Jerome Meyinsse said. “It was a surprise. Usually night in and night out, our defense is something that we can rely on, and tonight we just didn’t come out with any effort, intensity or intelligence on defense.”
Scott and Jones scored 16 points apiece to lead the Cavaliers. Jones played 27 minutes, his longest stint since Jan. 28. On that night, he came off the bench to score 12 points in 28 minutes in an overtime loss to Virginia Tech at JPJ.
Landesberg added 12 points but made only 5 of 13 shots. Of more concern for the ‘Hoos going forward is Zeglinski’s slump. The 6-0 sophomore, a starter all season, went 0 for 4 from the floor and failed to score Monday night.
Since going 5 for 9 in Virginia’s win at North Carolina on Jan. 31, Zeglinski has missed 25 of 31 field-goal attempts, including 16 of 19 from beyond the arc.
“Sammy’s a shooter, and when a shooter’s not hitting shots, it’s tough,” Bennett said. “I don’t think he forced any, but when we’ve played well, he’s knocked down some shots.”
In the end, though, missed shots weren’t what did UVa in Monday night.
“We’ve hung in there with good defense and shaky offense, but we haven’t hung in a game yet with poor defense, because we’re not that potent offensively to just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to trade buckets with you and we’ll be able to score with you,'” Bennett said.
“That’s certainly a lesson learned. And as I said, you can’t ever take it for granted. Just because you played good defense in the past doesn’t mean it’s just going to be there. You’ve got to desire it, and you’ve got to try to execute it.”