By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Maryland, the stakes could not be much higher. A win Saturday afternoon would assure the No. 22 Terrapins (12-3, 22-7) at least a share of the ACC regular-season title in men’s basketball.
UVa’s goals are more modest. With a victory in the regular-season finale, the Cavaliers (5-10, 14-14) would end an eight-losing streak and salvage a measure of pride in a challenging season. A win would also stamp a happy ending on what promises to be an emotional day for Calvin Baker, Jerome Meyinsse, Solomon Tat and Tom Jonke at John Paul Jones Arena.
“You want to see those seniors leave on a good note, fighting hard,” Tony Bennett, Virginia’s first-year coach, said after practice Friday night.
In the traditional Senior Day ceremony, Baker, Meyinsse, Tat and Jonke will be honored before the 1:30 p.m. game.
“It’ll be special,” Meyinsse said. “It’s here quicker than I thought. I’ll just try to enjoy the moment, and hopefully we can get a victory and end this losing streak.”
When the Wahoos headed to College Park, Md., last month, the mood around the program was not nearly as somber. UVa had lost two straight — in overtime to Wake Forest and by five points at Virginia Tech — but Bennett’s team appeared capable of knocking off the Terrapins.
Instead, the ‘Hoos unraveled, losing 85-66 to the Terps in a game that wasn’t that close.
“They probably beat us as thoroughly as anybody during this poor stretch,” Bennett said. “Their offensive efficiency and their aggressiveness offensively will sort of knock you back on your heels if you’re not ready.”
For whatever reason, the loss at Comcast Center sent the ‘Hoos into a freefall from which they’ve never recovered. Since leaving College Park, Virginia has lost by 19 to Florida State, by 23 to Clemson, by 12 to Miami, by 18 to Duke and, most recently, by 13 to Boston College.
“I think through this stretch of adversity, the inconsistency has really shown,” Bennett said, “and I think some discouragement has certainly set in, and that’s hard to battle. But battle it you must. And with one [regular-season] game left, I hope there will be a renewed sense of fight.
“As a coach I always believe, and I tell them this, right or wrong, that if they somehow can come together, I think they can be competitive and have a chance. I told them that before the BC game, I told them that in the locker room before [Thursday’s] practice.
“I may be a hopeless romantic, but I still think there’s more in his room than has been exhibited on the floor in the last few games. I think a number of reasons have led to us not being as competitive as we’d like, but I still am hopeful.”
The other Cavaliers would be wise to follow the examples set by Tat and Meyinsse. Tat, a 6-5 swingman from Nigeria, rarely plays, but even if he’s on the bench, his support of his teammates is unwavering.
“He’s a warrior,” Bennett said. “He’s got the best attitude I’ve seen, really, seeing his situation, in all my years of coaching … I’m so glad I’ve gotten to experience being with a guy like Solo because of his work ethic, but also because of his attitude, and that’s going to carry him far beyond [basketball].”
Meyinsse, a 6-9 center from Baton Rouge, La., has averaged 15.3 points in his past three games. He was named to the all-ACC academic team this month, as was UVa junior Will Sherrill, and Meyinsse recently was selected as one of 36 student-athletes from the ACC who will receive postgraduate scholarships.
“He’s a great role model off the court, on the court, great character kid,” Bennett said. “He’s just gotten better and better, and he’s become a bit of a presence for us inside. I couldn’t be happier for Jerome, who, again, represents all the right things.”
The ACC tournament starts Thursday in Greensboro, N.C. Where UVa will be seeded depends on the outcome of the Duke-North Carolina game.
If the fifth-ranked Blue Devils win Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Virginia will be the No. 9 seed in Greensboro, no matter what happens Saturday afternoon at JPJ. If UNC wins, UVa will be seeded 10th.