By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Its 5-2 start included an overtime loss to Virginia Tech, so UVa easily could have been 6-1 in conference play after beating N.C. State on Feb. 3.
Only two weeks ago, the Cavaliers, picked to finish 11th in the ACC, had the college basketball world buzzing about their unexpected success under first-year coach Tony Bennett. Now they’re in freefall.
Two nights after losing 85-66 to Maryland in College Park, UVa put up little resistance Wednesday against FSU. The Seminoles romped 69-50 before a subdued crowd of 10,365 at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We looked like a physically and mentally tired team out there,” Bennett said. “But being young, you gotta be able to battle.
“You gotta be an underdog and fight like crazy. I worry when we get down or get behind, we don’t handle that adversity well.”
The loss was the fourth straight for the Wahoos (5-6, 14-10), who were playing for the third time in five days. For the Seminoles (7-5, 19-7), by contrast, the game was their third in eight days.
Not since a 60-45 loss to North Carolina at University Hall on Feb. 11, 1998, had the ‘Hoos scored so few points at home.
“I thought we yielded on the physical end and on the mental end against a physical team that had a little more prep time,” Bennett said. “I can line those things up and say, ‘Hey, that hurt us.’ Whether it did or it didn’t, we have to be better than we showed.”
After the debacle in College Park — Maryland led by 29 late in the second half — Bennett shook up his backcourt, hoping the changes would spark his team.
They had no significant effect. Junior Jeff Jones, who replaced sophomore Sammy Zeglinski at shooting guard, contributed a team-high 13 points in his first start since Nov. 24. But senior Calvin Baker, who took freshman Jontel Evans’ place at the point, was ineffective, totaling no assists and 3 turnovers in 20 minutes.
Virginia’s other guards — Zeglinski, Evans and Mustapha Farrakhan — were a combined 3 for 12 from the floor.
As a team, the offensively challenged ‘Hoos shot 37.5 percent from the floor (and 27.8 percent from beyond the 3-point arc). They had one fast-break basket.
“We looked like we were stuck in mud out there,” Bennett said.
FSU does that to teams. For 62 straight games, the Seminoles’ opponent has shot under 50 percent from the floor.
As ineffective as they were on offense, the Cavaliers were worse on defense.
The only place the ‘Noles struggled was at the free-throw line, where they were 6 for 12. They hit 7 of 14 attempts from 3-point range. On shots inside the arc, they were 21 for 42.
Radio analyst Cory Alexander, a former UVa great, opened the postgame press conference by asking Bennett which concerned him more, his team’s offense or its defense.
“I told our guys I can handle losses, but the manner in which we lost the last couple games has been frustrating,” Bennett said. “Our limitations are there. You can see that. We struggle to score. But I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think when we get down, or adversity strikes, we aren’t able to muster up enough to rally from it. That’s a concern. The mental toughness was lacking today. Fatigue maybe was there, but the mental toughness was not there. Take your pick tonight. It was tough.”
UVa sophomore Sylven Landesberg, a 6-6 swingman, entered as the ACC’s fourth-leading scorer (17.8 ppg). Matched against FSU’s Chris Singleton, a 6-9 sophomore with the wingspan of a 7-footer, Landesberg found himself smothered for most of the game.
Landesberg finished with a season-low 4 points.
“He looked sluggish tonight, as did everybody,” Bennett said.
FSU is one of the tallest and most athletic teams in the ACC, and its length bothered the Cavaliers. At center, the Seminoles start 7-1 Solomon Alabi, who figures to be an NBA lottery pick one day. Singleton was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, and Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has the luxury of bringing 6-11, 240-pound Xavier Gibson off the bench.
“They make you earn everything, Florida State does,” Bennett said. “They did that to Boston College. I watched that game and realized, ‘This is going to be a grind.’ And it was for us.”
Alabi leads the ACC in blocked shots. Singleton is third.
“Against length like that, we have to move fast, we have to move the ball fast to try to get the movement, so the length doesn’t affect us so much,” said Jerome Meyinsse, a 6-9 senior who starts at center for Virginia. “That didn’t happen today, and I think that’s the main reason we struggled on offense.”
The Seminoles’ size “made it hard,” Bennett said. “All the looks were contested if you got in the lane. It was hard to get inside touches and score inside. Against teams like that, you’re going to have to knock down some outside shots to at least stretch them. But we weren’t doing that, that’s for sure.”
It’s no secret around the ACC that UVa struggles when Landesberg can’t shake loose on offense, and that “was one of our focuses for the game, to shut him down,” FSU guard Luke Loucks said.
“When you slow down a player like that, it kind of deflates the rest of the other team. He had a tough game tonight, but he’s a great player.”
Hamilton said: “We just told Chris that he had to be solid, because Landesberg has a whole lot of stuff to his game. He has the hesitation dribble, he has the perimeter shot, and he drives by you and lays it up. [Singleton] had to play solid and make [Landesberg] make some plays over him, as opposed to trying to reach and going for head fakes.”
The final score notwithstanding, this was not a blowout from the start. UVa actually led 9-6 after a free throw by Farrakhan with 10:51 left in the first half.
Even so, Meyinsse said, there were ominous signs early for Virginia on offense.
“We didn’t get the movement we needed to be successful,” he said. “We didn’t move the ball, we didn’t cut hard, and eventually their length and their good defense caught up with us.”
FSU pulled to 9-9 on a three-point play by Gibson, then took the lead for good on another three-point play, this one by Loucks, at the 10:11 mark.
In all, the Seminoles went to the line six times after being fouled on a made field goal. FSU converted only the first two of those three-point opportunities.
So dominant were the ‘Noles in every other area, those misses didn’t matter. FSU scored 14 fast-break points and 38 in the paint.
“We just didn’t play together,” said Virginia forward Mike Scott, who had 10 points and 6 rebounds. “We didn’t play hard. We didn’t play smart. We were just selfish.”
And now come two more tests: road games at Clemson and Miami. By the time they return to Charlottesville in the middle of next week, the ‘Hoos will have played five games in 11 days.
“They call these the dog days of the season, and that’s where you gotta fight,” Bennett said.
“It’s a challenge. But we’ll see where we’re at after this. I told them we’ll find out. I said this was a gut-check game, and obviously the manner in which we lost was poor. We’ve got to find other ways to try to get some looks, and you can’t lose your heart. And I thought that was taken — again — tonight.”