By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Into the exam break it goes, carrying a 6-3 record that includes road wins over Minnesota and Virginia Tech.
For the UVa men’s basketball team, that’s encouraging. The Cavaliers, picked to finish 11th in the ACC, played six of their first nine games away from John Paul Jones Arena, including three at the Maui Invitational, a tournament loaded with top-20 teams. Few in the basketball world would have been shocked had Virginia headed into final exams at 3-6 or 4-5.
So the Wahoos have reason to feel good about their early-season play. But the wretched affair that unfolded Tuesday night at JPJ left no one associated with the UVa program smiling.
This “just leaves a little bit of a bad taste in your mouth, how we finished this game,” second-year coach Tony Bennett said after Virginia’s 54-44 victory over Radford.
“We know we have to get better each game,” freshman K.T. Harrell said, “and we felt as if we didn’t get better this game. But the ultimate goal is to win, and we’re happy about winning.”
The Cavaliers shot 27.7 percent from the floor, their worst marksmanship in more than five years. Subtract Harrell’s fine effort — the 6-4 guard was 3 for 3 from beyond the arc and 5 for 6 overall — and UVa’s accuracy drops to 19.5 percent.
“It was pretty ugly,” freshman swingman Joe Harris said.
Until senior Mike Scott’s tip-in with 15.2 seconds left, only three of Bennett’s players had made a shot from the floor: Harrell, Harris and senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan. No wonder Bennett joked afterward that he’d fall asleep with his head full of the sounds of balls clanking off rims.
The game was UVa’s first at JPJ since Nov. 17. This was not the homecoming romp that most envisioned for Bennett’s team, though Radford (2-6) did its best to cooperate for much of the game.
UVa scored the final 17 points of the first half and led 32-19 at the break. To call it a 17-0 run would not be accurate. It spanned 9 minutes and 6 seconds and was more like a 17-0 stroll.
Radford’s final points of the half came on an Evan Faulkner 3-pointer that made it 19-15 with 7:34 left. The Highlanders didn’t score again until the 12:49 mark of the second half.
The ‘Hoos failed to capitalize on Radford’s offensive ineptitude. On UVa’s first possession of the second half, Harris scored on a drive to make it 34-19, and a rout seemed imminent. But the Cavaliers missed their next 15 field-goal attempts, a brutal stretch that the crowd of 8,242 watched in disbelief.
“You could just feel it, the rims shrinking,” said Bennett, who quipped that UVa would “probably have to repaint the rims after that game.”
More troubling to Bennett, who as a Wisconsin-Green Bay guard was one of the best shooters in NCAA history, were his team’s defensive breakdowns in the final 11 minutes. Radford, down 17 after UVa freshman Akil Mitchell made 1 of 2 free throws at the 11:18 mark, responded with seven straight points.
Harrell said: “You’re not going to shoot the basketball well every game, but you can’t let that affect you defensively, and I think that’s what happened to us. We let the poor shooting affect us defensively, and that’s why they were so close in the game.”
Radford’s coach is Brad Greenberg. Two nights earlier, in Blacksburg, UVa had upset Virginia Tech, the ACC team coached by his brother, Seth. The victory was the Cavaliers’ first at Cassell Coliseum since Feb. 11, 2006. Was it natural for the ‘Hoos to let down against the lightly regarded Highlanders?
“Not if you want to be a good team,” Bennett said. “That’s the bottom line. We said, ‘OK, we’re struggling [on offense], but don’t let it slide on the other end.’ And that’s what bothered me. A couple of the loose decisions [on offense] and then not helping each other on the defensive end. That, to me, should not slide, and when that slides, that’s what bothered me the most.
“I told them in the locker room afterward, I said, ‘I’ll live with missed shots, that’s OK. As long as you’re taking the ones that are there, you’re not forcing.’ But when it affects those other areas, it’s not acceptable.”
The Cavaliers don’t play again until Dec. 17, when Oregon visits JPJ. Expect Bennett’s team to spend considerable time in practice working on its zone offense. Radford came out in a 2-3 defense and had no reason to change tactics as the game progressed. Scott was uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball — the reigning ACC player of the week had a career-high 6 turnovers — and neither he nor his teammates, save Harrell, shot well from the floor.
“I thought there were some pretty good shots that we didn’t make,” Bennett said.
At the line, the Cavaliers fared better. Farrakhan was 8 for 8, as was Scott. Farrakhan and Harris led the ‘Hoos with 14 points apiece, and Harrell had 13 off the bench. Scott’s late basket gave him 10 points to go with his game-high 13 rebounds.
The 6-8, 242-pound forward is the first Cavalier since Ralph Sampson in 1983 to record five straight double-doubles.
“We learned a lot tonight,” Scott said. “We learned every game is not going to be easy. We’re going to have to win a lot of games with our defense. We got the shots we wanted. Shots just wouldn’t fall.”
The game revealed his team’s limitations, Bennett said, and “we’ll just keep trying to address them … Again, I said it last year, I’ll say it this year, there’s a fine line. When we’re not locked in and defending well and taking care of the ball, we become below-average. When they’re playing well and we’re sharp, we showed we can play with some good teams. But that’s who we are. I told them, ‘We’ll grow from it. We’ll learn.’ “
Harris said: “It was a bad game for us, but we’re going to flush this one and then get ready for Oregon.”