By Jeff White
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — For the UVa men’s basketball team, there were undeniable signs of progress Wednesday night at Boston College. That was small consolation for the Cavaliers, at least in the immediate aftermath of this ACC game.
“We gotta get over the hump at some point,” said senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan, who led Virginia with 14 points and had a career-high 7 rebounds.
That could have happened at Conte Forum, where the score was 62-62 with 1:35 to play. But the Eagles capitalized on a major defensive lapse by UVa, went 8 for 8 from the line in the final 90 seconds, and won 70-67 before a crowd of 4,628.
The loss was the third straight for the Wahoos (1-3, 10-8), all against teams at or near the top of the ACC standings. First it was North Carolina, then defending NCAA champion Duke and, now, Boston College (4-1, 14-5).
“We’re walking a pretty narrow beam,” said second-year coach Tony Bennett, “so our footing has to be pretty sure.”
With the outcome still undecided, the ‘Hoos slipped and fell. After calling a timeout with 1:33 left, BC fooled Virginia moments after play resumed. Eagles guard Biko Paris cut behind UVa guard Sammy Zeglinski, caught a backdoor pass and drew a foul on swingman Joe Harris, who had come away to help on the play.
Nine seconds earlier, Harris had tied the game at 62-62 with his third 3-pointer. Now he had his fifth foul, meaning his night was over, and Paris compounded UVa’s misery by making both free throws. Two more BC foul shots, these by Corey Raji, made it 66-62 with 59.5 seconds to play.
The ‘Hoos didn’t surrender, but they needed virtually everything to go right for them in the final minute, and it didn’t.
After Assane Sene converted a stickback that pulled Virginia to 64-62 — a basket that put the 7-0 junior into double figures for the first time in his college career — Bennett called a timeout with 40 seconds left.
The Cavaliers wanted to foul freshman Danny Rubin, a 60-percent foul shooter. An opportunity to do so presented itself almost immediately — the Eagles’ inbounds pass went to Rubin — but Virginia inexplicably let him pass the ball. BC advanced the ball past midcourt and then called a timeout with 32 seconds left.
Again, the ‘Hoos targeted Rubin, but he never touched the ball. The game clock ticked down to 16 seconds before the Cavaliers, with no better options, fouled guard Reggie Jackson, an all-ACC candidate who was the last player they wanted to send to the line.
Jackson, a 6-3 junior, was playing on a sore ankle, but his trey with 3:33 left had given Boston College a 61-58 lead, and he sank these two free throws to make it 68-64.
“He’s good,” Bennett said of Jackson, who finished with 16 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and no turnovers.
“We saw Nolan Smith take over on us at Duke. The real good ones, when the game gets to be that time, they come up. Even if they’ve been a little quiet or haven’t been on top, they find a way to impact the game for their team in a positive manner, whether it’s with a defensive play, a 3, or free throws.”
UVa refused to go quietly. With 4.6 seconds to play, Zeglinski hit an NBA-length trey to make it 68-67. But Jackson went back to the line with 2.8 seconds remaining. Once again he hit both free throws, and a desperation heave by UVa reserve guard Billy Baron, three-quarters of the court away from the basket, fell short as time expired.
Virginia led twice in the second half, each time by a single point. The second time, the score was 57-56 when the ball came to Zeglinski, uncovered in the right corner. His 3-point attempt missed, and Raji scored at the other end to put BC up 58-57 with 4:26 left.
“That one I’ll have him take all day,” Bennett said of Zeglinski’s shot.
The Cavaliers missed their first eight shots from 3-point range Wednesday, but they made three in the final 2:55 of the first half and went into the break trailing 34-28. They were fortunate to be down only six points after a half in which BC led by 13 at the 3:00 mark.
Point guard Jontel Evans sparked Virginia with 6 first-half points. After intermission, though, the 5-11 sophomore went 0 for 7 from the floor. Overall, Evans put up 14 shots — by far the most of any UVa player Wednesday night and three more than his previous career high.
“It’s tough,” Evans said. “I’ve been working on [shooting] since the summer, ever since the end of last season, but you just gotta keep working at it. Things just don’t happen overnight.”
Bennett’s postgame message to his players: He was disappointed about the loss, but not discouraged.
“I said, ‘There were good things that happened,’ ” Bennett told reporters. “Jontel, early in the game, he got us off the right way by getting there, and he was getting all the way [to the basket], making finishes, making plays. He did it against Carolina, did it against Duke. I said to him, ‘You get in there, keep working on making the right decision, we’ll keep working on our finishing.’ But there were some positives to build on, for a lot of those guys … I think they improved their play, but it didn’t show in the win column.”
Virginia is missing its best frontcourt player — 6-8, 242-pound Mike Scott (ankle) — and another important big man, 6-9 senior Will Sherrill, has yet to regain his early-season form since returning from a fractured fibula.
Given that, Sene has become an increasingly valuable part of the team, and slowly, steadily, surely he’s becoming a productive ACC player.
The native of Senegal took another step forward Wednesday. Four nights after scoring 8 points against Duke — his most ever in an ACC game — Sene had a career-high 11 versus BC. He also pulled down 9 rebounds and matched his career high with 5 blocked shots.
“I think really the last two or three games, he’s done a nice job, and I’m pleased to see his progress,” Bennett said.
Sene said: “I’ve just been working harder and just trying to be a leader, especially right now.”
Against the conference’s most experienced team, three freshmen played at least 19 minutes apiece for UVa: Harrell (13 points), Harris (11) and forward Akil Mitchell, whose 6 points were twice as many as he had previously scored in an ACC game.
Mitchell got many of the minutes that typically would have gone to Sherrill, who played only six against BC. For long stretches of the game, however, Virginia’s lineup included four perimeter players.
“We’re going to have to be as creative as we can and be unconventional at times,” Bennett said. “Sometimes foul trouble is the thing that puts it in the spot where we’re playing four guards. Sometimes we’re just better that way.
“I thought they were really attacking us off the bounce when it was Will Sherrill [in the game], so I felt like we had to have a little more mobility, whether it was Akil or a fourth guard, in that situation.”
In its losses to UNC and Duke, UVa squandered sizeable second-half leads. The ‘Hoos outscored BC 39-36 in the final 20 minutes.
“Tonight we just did better,” Sene said. “We stayed focused and played harder in the second half.
“It’s frustrating, but we just gotta learn from it. It’s not easy. The ACC is not easy, especially on the road. We just gotta keep working at it. The way we played tonight was a little bit better than the way we played against UNC or Duke.”
After two straight road games, the ‘Hoos will be back home this weekend. Virginia hosts Georgia Tech (2-2, 9-8) at noon Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“It’s always good to play at home, but you can’t play all your games at home,” Harrell said. “You gotta learn how to win some road games.”