By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The player whom second-year coach Tony Bennett could least afford to lose is sidelined again, and Mike Scott may not be back be anytime soon in 2011.
Scott’s importance to the UVa men’s basketball program never was more evident than Thursday night. In street clothes, the 6-8, 242-pound senior watched helplessly from the bench as Virginia suffered an excruciating 60-47 loss to Iowa State before 10,032 at John Paul Jones Arena.
“It’s a blow to our team, because he’s our leader,” freshman guard KT Harrell said. “We definitely need him out there on the court, but you still gotta play through players getting injured. It happens. We gotta play harder than what we came out there and played today.”
Scott, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, had arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle Dec. 16 and missed the next two games. But he returned Dec. 22 against Seattle and contributed 12 points and 8 rebounds in UVa’s 59-53 loss at JPJ. More important, he experienced no pain or swelling in his ankle after the game.
After a break for Christmas, Scott came “back better than ever,” Bennett said Thursday night.
Alas, the comeback was short-lived. During a practice early this week, Scott suddenly found himself unable to move well on his ankle, and he was held out of the Iowa State game. When he’ll return is uncertain.
“It’s unfortunate,” Bennett said. “I know he’s discouraged. Certainly I am. But I think we’ve just got to really take a good look [at Scott’s ankle], and we’re certainly not going to put him in harm’s way.”
In Scott’s absence, Harrell led the Wahoos with 9 points — the first time in nearly 20 years they didn’t have at least one player who scored in double figures. Virginia (8-5) scored fewer than 60 points for the third consecutive game, the first time that has happened since the 1993-94 season.
The ‘Hoos never led Thursday night and were fortunate to be down only nine points at halftime. Virginia’s 15 points in the first 20 minutes were the fewest ever scored in a half by a team at JPJ.
Senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan opened the second half with a jumper that pulled UVa to 24-17, and hope stirred in the stands. But Iowa State (12-2) answered with 14 straight points — center Jamie Vanderbeken and guard Scott Christopherson each had two treys during that run — and there was little suspense after that.
The Cyclones didn’t come closing to matching their scoring average (79.5 points), but 60 was plenty against the offensively challenged Cavaliers.
Virginia, which went 2 for 20 from 3-point range against Seattle, was 3 for 24 beyond the arc against Iowa State. Overall, the ‘Hoos shot 32.3 percent from the floor Thursday night.
Partly that was because, with Scott out, the Cyclones could focus on UVa’s outside shooters without fear of getting burned inside. Partly that was because Virginia players missed shots they’ve made in other games this season.
On 3-pointers, freshman swingman Joe Harris was 0 for 5. Farrakhan was 0 for 4, and freshman guard Billy Baron was 1 for 5. Junior guard Sammy Zeglinski was 1 for 3.
“We gotta keep going to the drawing board and finding ways to get some buckets,” Bennett said. “But again, when you get some clean looks and they’re not going in, there’s not a whole lot you can do but shoot them with confidence.”
UVa’s offense works better when the ball goes inside for what Bennett calls “paint touches.” Freshman power forward Will Regan scored a career-high 7 points against Iowa State. Junior center Assane Sene had 7 points as well, one shy of his career high. But neither demands the attention from defenders that Scott does, and that in turn makes it more difficult for Virginia’s perimeter players.
“At times we shoot it well in practice,” Bennett said. “At times we don’t. If you would have seen Joe yesterday in practice, or two days ago, he was unbelievable. I mean, he didn’t miss.
“Shooting’s a funny thing. You gotta shoot with confidence and get the quality shots when they’re there, but the young guys, and I think even some of our veteran guys, we get a little anxious. We’re relying on [outside shots] and can’t feed it down low, so I think it affects us a little bit. If you come up with any ideas about what to do, I’ll be all ears. But certainly we’ve worked at it.”
Bennett has yet to have all of his players available for a game this season. Out at various times have been Scott, Zeglinski and Will Sherrill, three of the team’s top eight players.
Sherrill fractured his right fibula Nov. 29 in UVa’s upset of then-No. 15 Minnesota and missed the next five games. The 6-9 forward returned Thursday night, and Bennett inserted Sherrill back into the starting lineup.
He gutted it out for 23 minutes. By the second half, Sherrill was limping noticeably, but he still finished with a career-high 9 rebounds.
Sherrill is a team captain, along with Scott and Farrakhan, and he’s aware of the challenges facing the ‘Hoos with their best player out.
“We can’t get caught up in the big picture. Just focus on the next day, the next practice, and we gotta keep getting better,” Sherrill said. “The main thing is, obviously we’ve been struggling shooting the ball. I thought for the first, really, three-quarters of the game our defense was good tonight, kept us in the game a little bit. But we’ve got to get in the gym and get extra shots, so we’ll be knocking down our shots.”
Vanderbeken had no trouble with his shot Thursday night. The 6-11, 240-pound senior showed remarkable range, hitting 5 of 8 from beyond the arc. He finished with a career-high 24 points and added 8 boards and 2 blocked shots.
“On some plays we were hedging too much on the ball screen,” Sherrill said. “On others we weren’t getting rotation from the weak side. It was kind of a combination of things that we were messing up on to allow him to get those open shots.”
At the 12:19 mark of the second half, Bennett put in 6-8 forward Akil Mitchell in for Sherrill. That gave Virginia an all-freshman lineup: Regan and Mitchell in the frontcourt and Baron, Harris and Harrell on the perimeter.
“I just said, ‘Let’s throw them in there and see how they respond,’ ” Bennett said. “They had trouble on the defensive end but did some OK things offensively, relatively speaking.”
Virginia’s first game of the new year comes Sunday night against LSU (8-6) at JPJ in what will be a match-up of struggling teams.
The Tigers have dropped three of their past four games. The ‘Hoos, meanwhile, no longer resemble the team that earned impressive victories at Minnesota and Virginia Tech. Scott totaled 38 points and 25 rebounds in those wins.
Bennett didn’t mince words with his players after the game Thursday night.
“I told them it gets tough,” he said. “It’s easy when you beat a Minnesota or you beat a Virginia Tech on the road, it’s easy to be all in. But when you lose tough games like this, that’s when it’s really tested, and we’ll have to really scrap. And we’ll find out our character and our ability to really stay together and keep trying to find ways to be in games, because the percentages are small for us when we have breakdowns or cold-shooting nights.”