By Jeff White
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Less than a minute remained in an ACC game that had long since slipped from UVa’s grasp, but there was Solomon Tat, a seldom-used senior, on the floor, battling for the basketball after knocking it away from Boston College’s Corey Raji.
“I thought that was great,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said late Wednesday at BC’s Conte Forum. “That was a highlight — if there was one — to see him get on the floor and get the ball.”
In the Cavaliers’ latest loss, they showed again that they desperately need more players with Tat’s spirit and attitude. He’s not the most talented player on this team — not even close — but whether the 6-5 swingman has played a season-best 11 minutes, as he did in the 68-55 loss to BC, or not a single second, as he has 16 times this season, he’s kept his head and his heart in the game.
Nobody cheers louder from the UVa bench than Tat, one of the team’s three captains. Nobody hustles more on the court.
“In most of the games I didn’t have the opportunity to play, but I just keep pushing,” Tat, a native of Nigeria, said after scoring a season-high 5 points against Boston College.
“And sometimes when I talk to the guys, sometimes they respond and sometimes they don’t. Whenever I’m out there, I just don’t want it to be me talking, but also setting an example to them … Every time I get the opportunity, I’m trying to play hard.”
With one regular-season game left — Saturday afternoon against No. 22 Maryland (12-3, 22-7) at John Paul Jones Arena — Virginia (5-10, 14-14) has lost eight in a row. Each of the past six defeats has been by at least 12 points, and the losing streak has worn on everyone associated with the program, its first-year coach included.
“I’m just looking for the guys who will fight and are proud to represent Virginia when they wear the uniforms,” Bennett said after the BC game. “We’re trying to figure out those guys and battle with them and see where we’re at.”
Tat said: “I think that’s one thing Coach has been preaching the whole season: Every time that we’re out there, just give your best. Don’t come back in the locker room with anything. Just leave everything out there. We’re given an opportunity every day that we’re out there, and sometimes we take it for granted.
“For me, as a Cavalier, I know this is my last year, but I also have to leave something to the guys that will be there. Because this is not about just us playing this season, but also us building a program.”
Virginia never led against BC (6-9, 15-14), which locked up the No. 8 seed in the ACC tournament. If fifth-ranked Duke beats North Carolina on Saturday night, the Wahoos will be seeded No. 9 and draw BC in the first round, no matter how they fare against the Terrapins.
The Eagles “were more physical than us today, and that was the difference in the game,” UVa center Jerome Meyinsse said. “If we end up meeting them again, we know that we have to match their physicality and keep them off the boards.”
Virginia swingman Sylven Landesberg said: “They’re definitely a very physical team. They crash the boards every opportunity they get. We gotta do a better job of boxing out and attacking the glass, and I think we’ll be able to contain them better if we do that.”
BC would probably relish another game with UVa. The Eagles are taller and stronger than Virginia at most positions, and they bolted to a 13-2 lead Wednesday night, running their trademark Flex offense flawlessly.
In the Flex, perimeter players often post up and get the ball down low, and UVa struggled to match up with the 6-6, 218-pound Raji and 6-5, 225-pound Rakim Sanders, among others.
“I felt like we weren’t ready to compete,” Bennett said of his team’s slow start. His players eventually fought back, “but I don’t know why we have to get in that spot. That’s why we made some substitutions. I’m going to play the guys that are going to fight and battle, and that’s kind of where we are.”
The Cavaliers shot 46.2 percent from the floor, their highest mark since a Jan. 31 win at North Carolina. Not since Feb. 3, in fact, had the ‘Hoos shot better than 38 percent.
It helped immensely that junior forward Mike Scott, who’d failed to score in UVa’s previous two games, went 6 for 8 from the floor. And Virginia got another strong effort from Meyinsse, a 6-9 senior who made all six of his field-goal attempts.
From the outside, though, Virginia’s struggles continued. The ‘Hoos made only 2 of 13 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, and “we got some real good looks, even early, shots that are just rhythm shots that you have to take,” Bennett said.
“I wish I could tell the guys something better about how to make those shots, but we’ll keep taking the open looks.”
Virginia’s best player, Landesberg, returned to the lineup after missing Sunday night’s loss to Duke with a deep bruise in his right thigh. The 6-6 sophomore scored 13 points against BC but missed 5 of 6 shots from beyond the arc and, even more out of character, went 0 for 2 from the line.
“That was definitely a result of not having my legs under me,” he said. “A lot of times jump shots were just missing short. As soon as I come back 100 percent, it won’t happen again.”
Landesberg played a game-high 36 minutes, and it “was tough,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. It was a little tough out there playing and running up and down, especially with [the Eagles] crashing the glass the way they were. I couldn’t really get that active down there. I was afraid I was going to hit my leg and [the pain] would have just started up again. But I tried. I went out there and tried to do what I could.”
Sammy Zeglinski tried too, but his efforts went unrewarded. Virginia’s starter at shooting guard, Zeglinski went 0 for 3 on 3-pointers and 0 for 6 overall. Since hitting 5 treys in the win over UNC, Zeglinski is 7 for 44 from long range.
“He looks like his legs are gone, and he’s really struggling to get the ball to the rim,” Bennett said. “I know that’s frustrating for a guy who was shooting it pretty well early. You want to be consistent and steady. Streaky is OK, but usually there’s a good streak, but then on the other side of that it gets tough.”
It would be one thing, Bennett added, if Zeglinski were forcing shots “or they weren’t good looks. But there’s some pretty rhythm good looks that are there. It’s just unfortunate.”
With 16 minutes left, the Cavaliers trailed by 19, but they slowly cut into BC’s lead. With about 6:45 to play, Scott fed Meyinsse for a basket that made it 58-45, and the score was unchanged when Virginia got the ball back.
Landesberg missed a 3-point attempt, but Scott came down with the offensive rebound. That extended the possession, but junior guard Jeff Jones put up an ill-advised, off-balance floater, and BC rebounded to start a fast break that ended with Evan Ravenel’s layup.
With the score 60-47, Landesberg missed two free throws, and BC converted a layup six seconds later.
Afterward, Bennett rued what he called “self-inflicted wounds.”
“To be able to tighten a game against a team on the road, you gotta really execute, and you can’t beat yourself when you get yourself in those spots,” Bennett said. “You put in a lot of energy to get there, and I think too many times we do some things that are costly, whether it’s a turnover or a breakdown on the defensive end. That’s what we’ve been struggling with for a lot of this year.”
Early in the season, Bennett noted, the ‘Hoos were shooting better, and “shooting covers over a multitude of sins, as they say. We got some shots to go, and when those aren’t going and you’re struggling from the outside, all your warts show.”
The BC game was only the second that Scott hasn’t started this season. In the first, against UAB in late December, he was returning from a high-ankle sprain. This time Scott lost his starting job after lifeless performances against Miami and Duke.
“We know Mike is a good player,” Landesberg said. “We know what he’s capable of. So we just keep telling him, ‘Keep your head up, keep your confidence up.’ We just try to keep feeding him confidence. Because he can score, and that’s what we need from him.”
Against BC, Bennett started Meyinsse and 7-0 sophomore Assane Sene in the frontcourt. Scott didn’t stay on the bench long. He checked in at the 16:55 mark of the first half after Sene picked up his second personal.
“I didn’t say much to Mike,” Bennett said. “I just started that lineup and wanted to see how he would respond, and I thought he came in and battled and was active on the glass and gave us some quality minutes.”
Scott finished with 9 rebounds, his best effort on the boards in about three weeks.
“I think he wanted to play at a higher level and help his team, because he was frustrated from the last two games,” Bennett said.
Scott said: “I just had to get back to what I normally do.”