By Jeff White
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — A hurried 3-point attempt by Joe Harris bounced off the rim, but teammate Jontel Evans tracked down the long rebound, keeping alive UVa’s comeback hopes in the final seconds Friday night.
A TCU player ran into Evans. No foul was called, however, and time expired at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center. And suddenly the Cavaliers found themselves relegated to the loser’s bracket of the Paradise Jam tournament, with their next game little more than 19 hours away.
“It is frustrating, because we’re better than that,” Evans said after Virginia’s 57-55 loss to TCU. “I feel like we beat ourselves tonight. I don’t feel like they beat us. We did uncharacteristic things — missing free throws and turning the ball over, not being sound.”
The Virginia team that whipped South Carolina State and Winthrop at John Paul Jones Arena before leaving for the tropics did not show up Friday night. Against TCU (3-0), Virginia turned the ball over 19 times, got outrebounded 30-28 and shot only 37.5 percent from the floor.
“That was frustrating,” third-year coach Tony Bennett said. “Yeah, they were physical and they pressured us, but some of our turnovers were brought on by ourselves. It wasn’t that they chased us into them. Some were very athletic plays on their part, but too many of them were just, again, [the result of] miscommunications, poor decisions. We were not in sync, and that was discouraging when you turn the ball over that many times. And then late in the game, you can’t leave that many points on the board, be it missed layups or at the free-throw line when you have a chance and you’re trying to claw back in the game, or a silly turnover.
“And that happened. We didn’t execute. There’s a mental toughness that you gotta have to break through in those settings, and we couldn’t do it.”
In the Wahoos’ rout of Winthrop — which, incidentally, could be their opponent here Monday — they were 19 of 19 from the line. The ‘Hoos missed 10 of 29 free throws Friday night.
“It was rough out there,” said 6-8 forward Mike Scott, who led Virginia with 13 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals.
If the lapses continue Saturday, the Cavaliers’ next game could well be rough too. At 3:30 p.m. Eastern, Virginia (2-1) meets Drexel (1-1), which was picked to finish first in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Dragons had a Paradise Jam opener much like Virginia’s, losing 61-56 to Norfolk State, but they have back most of the standouts from a team that finished 21-10 in 2010-11.
“They’re going to come back with great hunger, and we have to, too,” Bennett said. “In these tournaments, playing this many games in a short amount of time, you don’t have too much time to think or sulk. You gotta get yourself ready to go, and that’ll be a great challenge for us, but we’re here to find out some things about ourselves, and we’ve got to keep improving.”
The player of the game Friday night, without question, was 5-9 guard Hank Thorns, a fifth-year senior who spent his freshman and sophomore seasons at Virginia Tech before transferring to TCU.
In four games against UVa as a Hokie, Thorns was 2 for 15 from the floor and scored six points. In what almost certainly will be his only game against UVa as a Horned Frog, Thorns scored 16 points and handed out 4 assists, both game highs.
“I’ve never seen him go off like that,” said Scott, a fifth-year senior himself.
Thorns all but took over the game late, tormenting the Cavaliers who tried to guard him — Evans and fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski.
With 9:09 left, Thorns split a double team and scored on a drive down the lane to put TCU up 39-36. With 4:25 remaining, he scored on another drive, this one as the shot clock expired, to push the Horned Frogs’ lead to 45-41. His NBA-length 3-pointer made it 48-41 with 2:46 to play.
Finally, after a three-point play by Scott had pulled Virginia to 48-45, Thorns shook free from Zeglinski and buried a pullup jumper.
“He was just feeling it,” Evans said.
Defensive breakdowns made things easier for Thorns, but “he certainly made some plays,” Bennett said, “and that’s what it takes. Sometimes when the game is back and forth and people are struggling, some plays need to be made, whether it’s a guy getting to the rim and finishing, hitting a big 3, getting the offensive rebound, and we didn’t do that until the very end, when we were really scrapping to get back in it.”
In the final 41 seconds, TCU went 5 for 6 from the line. Yet the Cavaliers still had a chance to win this one — or at least force overtime — at the end. Evans, coming off the best game of his college career, struggled mightily Friday night, but he hit a 3-pointer that pulled the ‘Hoos to 54-52 with 19.5 seconds left.
At the other end, freshman guard Kyan Anderson, a former Virginia recruiting target, missed the front end of a one-and-one. But UVa forward Akil Mitchell couldn’t control the rebound, and TCU’s J.R. Cadot came down with the ball. Cabot was fouled by Mitchell on his putback. The ball dropped through the net, and then Cabot completed the three-point play to make it 57-52 with 15.2 seconds left.
The Cavaliers kept coming. Harris’ trey from the right wing made it 57-55 with 7.2 seconds left, and then TCU panicked against Virginia’s full-court pressure. Evans, in free-safety mode near midcourt, intercepted a pass and quickly got the ball to Harris on the right wing.
Harris, who finished with 13 points, had more time than he realized. His rushed shot missed the mark, the contact on Evans in the scramble for the rebound went unpunished, and the game ended.
“I should have had some more court awareness to know how much time was on the clock,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t have had to throw one up like that and we could have had a better look.”
Improbable as that outcome might have been, given their myriad mistakes, the ‘Hoos probably would have walked away winners had Harris hit his final attempt.
“It would be a good feeling right now,” Bennett said after the game, “but we struggled. We did … It’s intense out there, and I thought some guys got discouraged too easily if it was a missed free throw, a turnover or we got backdoored a few times.
“The kids didn’t quit. They played hard, but we always talk about, there’s got to be execution to it, and [TCU} executed more than we did, made big plays down the stretch.”
Zeglinski, who sat out Virginia’s first two games while recovering from a sprained ankle, was 2 for 2 from the floor Friday night, both shots coming from beyond the 3-point arc. But with 7:08 remaining, a TCU player hit Zeglinski’s injured ankle while diving for a loose ball, and Zeglinski clearly was uncomfortable the rest of the game.