By Jeff White (email@example.com)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — As UVa basketball players filed off the team bus one by one and trudged into the team hotel Thursday afternoon, they were greeted by applause from family members gathered in the lobby.
The Cavaliers tried to show their appreciation, but smiles did not come easily. Virginia’s first-round loss in the ACC tournament was still too fresh, still too painful. None of the players — or their coaches — had experienced anything like this on the court before Thursday.
“It feels horrible,” freshman forward Joe Harris had said about 30 minutes earlier at the Greensboro Coliseum after No. 8 seed Virginia’s mind-boggling collapse. The Wahoos squandered a 10-point lead in the final 40 seconds of regulation and lost 69-62 in overtime to ninth-seeded Miami.
“It was very difficult to watch,” said UVa’s best player, 6-8 forward Mike Scott, who was on the bench in street clothes, as he had been for every game in 2011.
Eventually, the wounds opened by the crushing defeat will heal, and the ‘Hoos will be able to reflect more objectively on their second season under coach Tony Bennett. Barring an invitation to the NIT, the Cavaliers probably have played for the final time in 2010-11, and their record of 16-15 represents a modest improvement from last season, when they finished 15-16.
But the record doesn’t tell the whole story. Picked to finish 11th in the ACC, UVa won seven conference games, its most in four years, and ended the regular season tied for seventh despite facing considerable adversity along the way.
Junior guard Sammy Zeglinski missed the Cavaliers’ first seven games while recovering from knee surgery, and he didn’t regain his 2009-10 form until the final six weeks of the season.
Senior forward Will Sherrill fractured his right fibula twice, first at Minnesota on Nov. 29 and then at Miami on Feb. 5. Sherrill, a starter, missed 10 games altogether and limped through many others.
And then, of course, there was Scott, an all-ACC candidate who averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds in his 10 games, the last of which was Dec. 22. Without Scott, the ‘Hoos had no proven low-post scorer, yet Bennett and his staff consistently were able to put the team in position to win.
Virginia did not always do so — see the two numbing losses to Miami in particular — but the team’s progress bodes well for the future.
“I think we can hold our heads high about the season,” Harris said. “There’s been a lot of growing and experiences along the way. We faced a lot of adversity with losing Mike at the beginning of the year and then having guys like Will get hurt. It was good for all of us freshmen, because it forced us to step up and kind of create an identity for ourselves, and establish some roles.”
Highlights included two victories over Virginia Tech and wins at Maryland and Minnesota.
“I feel like another step has been taken,” sophomore point guard Jontel Evans said. “We did a lot of great things without our best player, Mike, and I know when he comes back we’re going to be even better. So I feel like we’re headed in the right direction and can be one of those top teams in the conference next year.”
Scott is applying for a hardship waiver, and UVa officials are confident that the NCAA will allow him to compete as a fifth-year senior in 2010-11. Assuming Scott is back, Virginia will have to replace two seniors: the 6-9 Sherrill (4.3 ppg. 2.8 rpg) and 6-4 shooting guard Mustapha Farrakhan, who has scored a team-high 418 points this season.
“I feel like we laid the foundation for what Virginia basketball’s all about,” said Farrakhan, who totaled 14 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 assists against Miami. “Hopefully these guys can just continue to get better and bring that same effort every day.”
The seniors “did a lot for us this year,” Bennett said, “and Will getting healthy at the end of the year contributed to a stronger finish for us than in [2009-10].”
Sherrill said: “I wish I had two more years with Coach Bennett, because of the way that he approaches every day in practice, the way that his staff [has] pushed us all to get better, and just what he stands for in this program.
“The program’s on the way up, definitely, as soon as next year, with the guys coming back that we have, especially with Mike getting healthier, and some of the older guys, like Sam, hopefully he’ll be healthy for the whole season. I think there’s a lot of good expectations that we have [about] getting into the NCAA tournament and challenging for ACC championships.”
In addition to his cast of returning players, Bennett expects to have at least four new options next season.
One will be 6-9 center James Johnson, a scholarship player who practiced with the team all season. Johnson will be a redshirt freshman in 2011-12 and should supply much-needed size and athleticism in the frontcourt.
Three recruits signed with UVa in November — 6-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon, 6-7 small forward Paul Jesperson and 6-8 power forward Darion Atkins — and Bennett has another scholarship available for 2011-12 should he choose to use it.
The Cavaliers’ rotation this season has included three freshmen: the 6-6 Harris, 6-4 shooting guard KT Harrell and 6-8 forward Akil Mitchell. Another first-year player, 6-8 power forward Will Regan, has appeared in 20 games.
“We have a lot of young guys with experience in the league,” Scott said. “It’ll be a plus for us [next season].”
Only Farrakhan has scored more points for UVa this season than Harris (323), who’s averaging 10.4 per game. Harris had only 5 points against Miami but contributed in other ways, finishing with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and a career-high 4 steals.
Mitchell had a career-high 8 rebounds, in only 22 minutes, against the Hurricanes, and Harrell broke out of a slump with 9 points, his most since Jan. 22.
“It definitely felt good to get that rhythm that I had midway and in the beginning of the season,” said Harrell, who started 15 of UVa’s first 21 games. “But I was just trying to go out there and win. That was the main thing. I didn’t have my own agenda. It wasn’t about that. It was about winning a game.”
The defeat, Harrell said, will motivate him.
“I’m going to try to come back next year as a new player, a different player, and work as hard as I possibly can this offseason,” he said. “A loss like this hurts, but a loss like this helps me learn something about me and our team.”
Harris said: “It’s one of the worst feelings, and I know it’ll drive myself and everybody else when we’re preparing for next season.”
Had they held on against Miami, the Cavaliers would have won for the fifth time in seven games. Moreover, they would have then had an opportunity to knock off North Carolina in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“I really wanted for our seniors and for our program to get into a game to play the No. 1 seed in this tournament and keep improving,” Bennett said. “I thought that would have been a real important step. I wanted that very badly for them.
“But to step back and look at it, there was some good basketball played by our guys [this season]. I thought we showed some resiliency, showed the right momentum, the right direction for what is to come. Certainly away from this I’ll look back and say, ‘All right, there’s some good things happening.’ But our offseason will be significant. Guys will have to improve.”