By Jeff White
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — More often that not, victory has eluded the UVa men’s basketball team in ACC play this season. It happened again Saturday afternoon at the not-so-storied Donald L. Tucker Center, where Florida State fought off Virginia’s determined comeback and won 63-56.
The Seminoles (8-3, 18-7) appear headed back to the NCAA tournament. The undermanned and undersized Cavaliers (3-7, 12-12) may be headed for a third straight losing season. The defeat was the fourth in five games for the ACC’s ninth-place team, and the losses are taking a toll on the Wahoos.
“I know myself and the rest of the team, the coaches and everyone, we’re tired of just coming close and not coming up with the win,” freshman Joe Harris said after scoring 17 points and grabbing a team-high 7 rebounds against FSU.
Don’t give up. That’s second-year coach Tony Bennett’s message to a team that played Saturday without two of its three seniors, 6-8 Mike Scott and 6-9 Will Sherrill. Scott and Sherrill also happen to be two of the Cavaliers’ best big men and two of their three captains. Scott averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds before an ankle injury ended his season prematurely.
“It’s hard,” Bennett said. “You look at them in the locker room and you say, ‘You’re fighting. You’re getting close,’ and that can sound old. But I said, ‘What’s the alternative?’ I said, ‘Just don’t go backwards.’ I want them to be the best they can be, and that’s scrapping in there and fighting.
“I said, ‘At some point we’re going to push through. Don’t know if it’s this year, don’t know if it’s next year, but don’t you dare go backwards.’ “
That’s not going to happen, said 6-8 forward Akil Mitchell, one of three UVa freshmen to play at least 18 minutes Saturday.
“I think that’s why [Bennett] recruited us,” Bennett said. “He recruited guys that are willing to stay in and be tough. Because the harder you try — it may be really dark, you may feel like you’re really down — but the more you keep pushing, you’ll make it. I’m ready to keep battling.”
Against a taller, more athletic, more talented opponent, the ‘Hoos battled Saturday. With 8:30 left, they trailed by 16, but five straight points by freshman guard KT Harrell and a trey by Harris slashed that deficit to eight.
Suddenly FSU looked rattled. The Seminoles’ all-ACC candidate, 6-9 Chris Singleton, had departed with a fractured right foot midway through the first half, and they’re not a great offensive team to begin with.
Michael Snaer, a former McDonald’s All-American, hit a jumper to push Florida State’s lead back to 10, but UVa guard Sammy Zeglinski answered with back-to-back 3-pointers, and it was 55-51 with 2:50 left.
Twice the ‘Hoos had opportunities to cut the Seminoles’ lead to two, the first a 3-point attempt by Harris, the second a 3-point attempt by Zeglinski. Neither shot went in, but with 1:11 left, Harris scored on a drive to pull Virginia to 56-53.
The Cavaliers got no closer. With the shot clock running down, FSU’s next possession ended with a basket inside by 6-10, 240-pound center Bernard James. A UVa turnover followed, and the ‘Noles went 5 for 6 from the line in the final 23 seconds to seal a harder-than-expected victory.
For Virginia, the loss was “really frustrating,” 7-0 center Assane Sene said, “but it’s basketball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Especially this year, we keep our heads up no matter what happens.”
Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton started James, Singleton, 6-8 Okaro White, the 6-5 Snaer and 6-4 Derwin Kitchen. Off the bench, FSU’s options included 7-0, 250-pound Jon Kreft and 6-11, 240-pound Xavier Gibson.
“They’re all definitely really long and athletic,” said the 6-6 Harris, a swingman who has been starting at power forward for UVa. “That’s why they’re such a great defensive team. They’re always bothering shots with their length.”
Bennett countered with a starting lineup of Sene, Harris, 6-4 Mustapha Farrakhan, 6-1 Sammy Zeglinski and 5-11 Jontel Evans. It looked like a mismatch, but the ‘Hoos bolted to a 14-7 lead, and they were still up, 19-15, when Singleton got hurt.
Singleton, a junior, is the reigning ACC defensive player of the year and a potential NBA lottery pick. In 10 minutes Saturday, he made all four of his shots from the floor and scored 11 points, so UVa should have benefited from Singleton’s absence. But the Seminoles, however improbably, came alive without their best player.
A layup by Farrakhan pulled Virginia to 21-21, but FSU responded with an 11-0 run that included three 3-pointers.
“We had a little lapse in the first half that probably cost us the game,” said Zeglinski, who led UVa with a season-high 19 points. “They did a good job of reversing the ball and finding the open man out of the post trap. But at the same we gotta be able to scramble back and get a hand up.”
Defensive breakdowns hurt the ‘Hoos early in the second half, too.
After closing to 39-29 on a Zeglinski 3-pointer — he had five for the game — the Cavaliers promptly allowed two fast-break baskets, the second an alley-oop dunk by Snaer that delighted the crowd of 10,266.
“I didn’t like the feeling,” Bennett said. “I thought we were too easy to score on.”
Few teams in college basketball are harder to score on than FSU, which leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense (35.9). The Cavaliers, not surprisingly, struggled to get open shots Saturday, yet they still found a way to climb back in the game.
“Obviously we’re a little bit limited because of injuries and stuff,” Zeglinski said, “so we know we can’t have those lapses in the game to let teams run away with it. But I thought we did a good job staying together on the road in the second half. We battled.”
Harris said: “I think collectively as a group we know we’re not going to just keel over and die. It kind of shows the character of our team. When we get in a hole like that, we’re going to battle out of it, regardless of how much we’re down.”
A week earlier, poor free-throw shooting had cost Bennett’s team a victory over Miami, a win would have ended the Cavaliers’ long losing streak in this state. That skid reached 14 games Saturday, but not because UVa faltered from the line.
Virginia made 7 of 8 free throws. From the floor, however, the ‘Hoos made only 19 of 60 attempts (31.7 percent). With Scott out, Farrakhan is UVa’s leading scorer, but the senior guard was 3 for 15 against FSU, 1 for 9 from long range.
Farrakhan went to the bench with 11:42 remaining. Bennett didn’t put him back in the game for more than 10 minutes.
“I know Mu was down [after the game],” Bennett said. “He had obviously a cold night, and we need probably three of our four guys who are [proven scorers] to really be at a decent level for us to be successful, especially on the road.”
The 3-point shot kept UVa in the game. The Cavaliers made only two two-point field goals after intermission, both in the final 71 seconds, in large part because of the defensive prowess of James, who swatted five shots.
“James was playing paddleball with our shots every time we got in the lane,” Bennett said.
Virginia was more successful from beyond the arc. Zeglinski went 5 for 11 from long range, Harris 4 for 9 and Harrell 1 for 1.
“We’re going to take open looks when we get them,” Harris said, “because they’re tough to come by, especially against a great defensive team like this. It just happened that a lot of our looks in the second half were 3s. But any time you get a clear look at the basket, Coach wants you to take the shot.”
UVa’s next two games are at John Paul Jones Arena: Wednesday night against defending NCAA champion Duke and Saturday afternoon against Virginia Tech. Both are sold out. It’s too early to say if Sherrill will be available for either one.
The 6-9 forward, who missed five games in December with a fractured right fibula, re-injured his leg at Miami last weekend. Sherrill did not practice in the days leading up to the FSU game.
“Hopefully he’ll be able to return soon,” Bennett said. “When he’s able to play, he’ll play.”