By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CLEMSON, S.C. — The venue seems to make no difference. Wherever the UVa men’s basketball team plays these days, it struggles to defend and misses many more shots than it makes.
That’s been the Cavaliers’ M.O. at Comcast Center, John Paul Jones Arena and, now, Littlejohn Coliseum.
Against ACC rival Clemson, UVa never led Saturday. At one point the Wahoos trailed by 32. The taller, stronger, quicker, faster, bouncier Tigers romped 72-49, the fifth straight defeat for a UVa team hasn’t been competitive in its past three games.
“We’re a little overmatched right now,” first-year coach Tony Bennett said. “I’ve always said we walk a fine line, and I think certainly we’re on the other side of it.”
In each of the past three games, UVa opponent has shot at least 50 percent from the floor. At the other end, the Cavaliers (5-7, 14-11) haven’t shot even 38 percent since beating N.C. State on Feb. 3.
The Wahoos’ point total Saturday matched their lowest of the season and came three days after they scored 50 in a loss to Florida State.
“We’re really struggling to score the ball,” sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “That might be an understatement.”
Playing at home for the third straight game, Clemson (7-5, 19-7) showed why it’s headed, in all likelihood, back to the NCAA tournament. Oliver Purnell has a mature program, one whose players understand what their coach wants and are capable of executing his game plan.
“This time of year, when the other team is struggling, a really good team grabs the game by the throat and holds on,” Purnell said.
And that’s exactly what his Tigers did. That they would press Virginia was a given. Clemson presses every opponent. But Purnell also wanted his team to attack the ‘Hoos where they were most vulnerable: in the paint.
“We thought we had an advantage there,” Purnell said. “Scott’s a really good post player, but we didn’t feel they had a lot of depth in there.”
Mike Scott, a 6-8 junior, scored 14 points to lead UVa, but he often looked lost on defense, and Bennett’s other big men were no more effective. Assane Sene, Jerome Meyinsse and Will Sherrill combined for 4 points and 8 rebounds.
Meyinsse, a 6-9 senior, had started the previous 11 games at center, but Bennett went Saturday with Sene, a 7-0 sophomore who hadn’t been in the first five since Dec. 30.
“He’s an active big guy, does a solid job defensively,” Bennett said of Sene. “Today none of us did too well defensively. I just wanted to take a look and get a feel for him, give him some more time and see where he was at.”
Sene did not seize the opportunity. He missed both of his field-goal attempts, one of which was blocked. Twice he fouled Clemson center Jerai Grant, who’s four inches shorter, on what became three-point plays.
“It was too easy inside,” Bennett said. “Too many baskets in the paint, and that just killed our defense.”
Trevor Booker, an all-ACC candidate, started his 128th straight game for the Tigers and dominated inside, totaling 14 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 blocked shots and 1 steal.
With his fourth rebound, the 6-7 senior became only the third player in Clemson history with 1,000 career boards, joining Tree Rollins and Dale Davis, against whom Bennett, as a Wisconsin-Green Bay sophomore, played at Littlejohn in 1990.
Grant benefited from the attention paid to Booker. He made 8 of 9 attempts from the floor, matched his career high with 18 points and, for good measure, blocked 4 shots.
“They abused us inside,” Bennett said.
Things weren’t much better on the perimeter for Virginia, which plays Tuesday night at Miami (3-9, 17-9). The Cavaliers gave up six 3-pointers and made only two themselves. And even on those rare occasions when their defense stiffened, they struggled to capitalize. To wit:
Thrice in the second half freshman point guard Jontel Evans stole the ball in the open court, and each time he dribbled in for a layup attempt.
Only once was he able to convert his defensive gem into two points. His first and third shots were challenged by Clemson defenders and missed the mark.
“That’s so frustrating,” Evans said. “I don’t know what was going on. Maybe it was the atmosphere.”
A capacity crowd of 10,000 saw the Tigers, led by 6-6 senior David Potter, limit UVa’s leading scorer, Sylven Landesberg, to 13 points.
Zeglinski scored 11 — his first game in double figures since Jan. 31 — but Virginia opponents know they risk little by ganging up on Landesberg, a 6-6 sophomore who came in averaging 17.2 points.
Consistency continues to elude junior guards Mustapha Farrakhan and Jeff Jones, who were a combined 1 for 8 from the floor Saturday. Farrakhan, Jones and Scott were among the Cavaliers who shot air balls at Littlejohn.
“I can’t really explain it,” Landesberg said of UVa’s lack of production on offense. “I think we’re getting good looks. It’s just a matter of finishing them.”
Trying to ignite his sputtering offense, Bennett at times used a lineup that included four perimeter players. It did not produce the desired results against a swarming Clemson defense.
“It looks anemic right now,” Bennett said of his team’s offense.
After falling behind 66-34, the ‘Hoos ran off 13 straight points against Clemson reserves. That wasn’t nearly enough to alter the outcome — or even scare the Tigers — but similar effort had been lacking late against Florida State in Charlottesville.
Losing is “hard for young men, and we’ve tried to just tell them, ‘You can’t let your effort die,'” Bennett said. “I don’t think the effort waned [against Clemson], but the soundness and the execution wasn’t there.”
The team flew to Miami after the game Saturday and will practice Sunday and Monday. The Cavaliers have four regular-season games left, starting Tuesday night. That will be UVa’s fifth game in 11 days.
“We’ve played a lot of games in a short amount of time,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if we have the same zip in our legs. But everybody’s tired at this point. We’re maybe a little more tired with the amount of games we’ve played.
“If the schedule was different, would [Virginia’s play] be any different? I can’t answer that. Fatigue’s playing a role, but it is what it is.”
Zeglinski said: “We all know that we’re struggling. Things aren’t going our way. We’re not making shots. Our defense is not playing as well as it used to. We just gotta man up and challenge each other.”