By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — In a University of Virginia men’s basketball program that dates to the 1905-06 season, there have been few, if any, losses more excruciating than the one Tony Bennett’s team experienced Thursday afternoon.
“You could tell those guys were kind of in shock, because they had the game,” Miami guard Malcolm Grant said.
The eighth-seeded Cavaliers had the game, and then they gave it away in stunning fashion. UVa, ahead by 10 points with 40 seconds left in the second half, ended up losing 69-62 in overtime to the No. 9 seed Hurricanes in the ACC tournament’s first round at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“Right now it feels like we should be getting ready to play tomorrow at noon, but we’re not,” Bennett said at his postgame press conference.
With its second overtime victory of the season over Virginia, Miami (19-13) advances to meet top-seeded North Carolina in the first ACC quarterfinal Friday. For the Wahoos (16-15), their second season under Bennett is likely over. If that’s the case, the year could not have ended on a more gut-wrenching note.
“The first loss we had to Miami stung enough,” freshman forward Joe Harris said, “but this was tough. I’ve never been part of anything like this. It feels horrible. I’ve never lost a game like this before in my life. I don’t even know how to explain it.”
Sophomore point guard Jontel Evans echoed those comments.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like this,” Evans said. “It’s a shock to me. I’m still amazed that we’re sitting here with an ‘L.’ ”
After falling behind 37-30 midway through the second half, Virginia had rallied to score 20 of the game’s next 22 points. The run included a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer by junior guard Sammy Zeglinski that put the ‘Hoos up 48-39 with 2:57 left, at which point the ‘Canes appeared ready to succumb.
“I thought that was the dagger,” Bennett said, “but it wasn’t.”
The Cavaliers did not unravel immediately. In fact, they went up 11 on a layup by junior center Assane Sene at the 2:14 mark, and they led by 10, at 53-43, after senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan made 1 of 2 free throws with 42 seconds left.
From there, for the game to go to overtime “everything that could go wrong had to go wrong [for UVa],” Bennett said, “and then [Miami] had to finish.”
Which is exactly what happened, and their epic collapse will haunt the ‘Hoos through the offseason.
“We got rattled,” Bennett said.
With 35 seconds left, Miami guard Durand Scott hit a 3-pointer to make it 53-46. The ‘Canes were forced to foul, and Zeglinski (13 points) went to the line for two shots with 32 seconds remaining.
He had missed the front end of a one-and-one at the 1:26 mark. Now Zeglinski missed both free throws, evoking memories of UVa’s regular-season loss to Miami, a game in which Bennett’s team made only 9 of 22 foul shots, blew a late lead in regulation and lost in OT at Coral Gables, Fla.
The Hurricanes pounced. A 3-pointer by Grant pulled Miami to 53-49 with 23 seconds to play, and then came the first of four Virginia turnovers in the final 20 seconds.
Evans, his progress halted in the backcourt, threw a low pass to Zeglinski back under Miami’s basket. Zeglinski appeared to momentarily take his eyes off the ball, and it went through his legs and out of bounds.
UVa, clearly flustered, then broke down defensively, leaving 6-9 Julian Gamble uncovered in the lane. He caught the inbounds pass and dunked to make it 53-51 with 19 seconds left.
Bennett, trying to settle his players down, called a timeout. “You could see a little bit of a dazed look in their eyes,” he said later.
Yet another mistake followed. An Evans inbounds pass intended for Farrakhan instead went directly to Scott under the Miami basket. Scott rose for a layup that made it 53-53 and was fouled by Farrakhan on the play.
“There was just miscommunication,” Evans said. “Mu cut one way and then faked back up, and I threw it, because I thought he was going to seal [his defender] up.”
The clock showed 13.9 seconds remaining, and Bennett called another timeout. When play resumed, Scott missed the free throw that would have put Miami ahead, but in the scramble for the rebound, Farrakhan and Zeglinski collided near the sideline, knocking the ball out of bounds with 11.6 seconds to play.
“We both had our hands on it,” Zeglinski said. “We miscommunicated, and it slipped out of our hands. Just one of those plays.”
With a chance to win in regulation, the ‘Canes turned the ball over with 1.3 seconds left, but the Cavaliers could not capitalize.
Ninety-four feet from the winning basket, UVa turned it over yet again when Gamble intercepted Will Sherrill’s ill-advised inbounds pass. Gamble’s desperation 3-point attempt missed, and the teams headed to overtime.
Looking at his players and their body language before and during OT, Bennett did not like what he saw.
“We were deflated,” he said later. “Certainly that was a concern, the way we lost that lead, and [Miami] certainly had the momentum and sent it into overtime. We couldn’t even come up with the ball with 11 seconds left in regulation to have a chance to get a shot to win it. We really labored and struggled mightily down the stretch.”
Miami dominated in overtime, scoring on virtually every possession. UVa led once in the five-minute extra period, on a Harris trey that made it 56-55 with 3:49 left, but the ‘Canes answered with a 10-1 run. Unlike Virginia, Miami didn’t squander its commanding lead.
“Every guy we called on late in the game made plays,” Hurricanes coach Frank Haith said. “Every guy.”
UVa has two seniors, and both started Thursday. Farrakhan led the ‘Hoos with 14 points, his seventh straight game in double figures, and also had 5 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 assists. Sherrill, a 6-9 forward, played 25 minutes and scored 3 points.
To open his postgame press conference, Bennett thanked his seniors and said he had badly wanted Sherrill and Farrakhan to have an opportunity to play against UNC in the quarterfinals. A victory over Miami also would have improved the Cavaliers’ chances of landing an NIT invitation, which now seems unlikely.
The loss “really stings,” Bennett said, “because I really thought our guys bounced back and defended in the second half the way they needed to. Offensively, they were efficient. And then we got down to the end of the game and we missed some free throws. We had some silly turnovers.
“If you don’t take care of the ball and you miss free throws and you can’t ice the game, you put yourself in spots where you can lose it. It was unfortunate. It stings, but I’d like to say hopefully we can learn and grow from it. We’ll see where we’re at. I know the guys that are coming back, when the dust settles, hopefully we’ll have a great offseason and improve.”
Sherrill described the final minute of regulation as something of “a whirlwind.” The former walk-on knew it might well have been the final game of his college career.
“It’s kind of a shock a little bit,” Sherrill said, “just because when you pour so much of yourself and so much of your life into doing something for four years, as me and Mustapha have, the fact that it ends like this, it hurts a lot. I’d be lying to say it didn’t hurt a lot.”
The Cavaliers won four of their final five regular-season games and “were pretty confident coming into this game,” Sherrill said, “just because we knew if we played defense the way we’ve been playing lately, we would be able to execute and get good shots on offense. We’ve been taking care of the ball a lot better lately, especially against Maryland, who presses a lot. And when we were up by, like, nine or 10 with 45 seconds left, I was thinking we were getting ready to play North Carolina.”
Sherrill paused before continuing.
“That’s life,” he said. “Things happen, and you just gotta deal with them.”
Farrakhan agreed. “It’s frustrating, but you can’t change it now.”
Like his teammates and coaches, Farrakhan said he had never lost a game in such an agonizing manner, “but I guess there’s a first time for everything. I just hope the younger guys can be able to learn from it and not make the same mistake twice.”