By Jeff White
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — By the time the team plane made it back to Charlottesville on Saturday evening, Tony Bennett had nearly finished reviewing the video of No. 16 UVa’s 58-55 loss to No. 21 Florida State. the Cavaliers’ third-year coach saw a lot that he liked.
“We’re close,” Bennett told his players.
Against a team as talented as FSU, however, the Wahoos can’t afford to turn the ball over a season-high 20 times, as they did Saturday afternoon at the Donald L. Tucker Center in Tallahassee. And they have to figure out ways to stay productive offensively when opponents collapse on fifth-year senior Mike Scott, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer.
In a game matching two of the ACC’s top defensive teams, UVa (5-3, 18-4) trailed 42-29 with 7:45 left and, later, 44-31. But then freshman guard Malcom Brogdon buried a 3-pointer, starting a 14-0 run that gave the ‘Hoos their first lead of the second half.
It didn’t last long. After point guard Jontel Evans stole the ball and dribbled in for a layup that put UVa up 45-44 with 4:39 to play, FSU (7-1, 16-6) answered with six straight points, a run that junior guard Michael Snaer started with a trey from the left corner.
Virginia didn’t go away, and Bennett’s team had the ball trailing 55-52 in the final 20 seconds. But sophomore swingman Joe Harris barely missed a 3-point attempt, and the ‘Noles made enough free throws in the last 14 seconds to end UVa’s three-game winning streak.
At his postgame press conference, Bennett said, “I told our guys in the locker room after, ‘You made a statement [about] the kind of heart you have and the fight in you, and that was good. But we also made a statement that we’ve got clean up some of these turnovers and be more efficient to play against a team like this, because baskets aren’t easy to come by.’ ”
UVa’s losses have all been close: by two points to TCU, by three to Duke, by two to Virginia Tech and, now, by three to FSU. Against TCU, Virginia had 19 turnovers. The ‘Hoos had 20 in the first 32 minutes against the Seminoles.
“That’s not us,” Evans said in the locker room, “and if those turnovers were cut down, we’d probably be here celebrating.”
Against an FSU team that starts 6-11 Xavier Gibson and 6-10 Bernard James and brings 7-0 Jon Kreft and 6-9 Okaro White off the bench, five Cavaliers had at least 2 turnovers apiece. Scott had 7. Until Saturday, he had not turned the ball over more than four times in an ACC game.
“Florida State certainly defends at a high level,” Bennett said. “They’re athletic, they’re quick, they’re physical, and they certainly with their quality defense made us turn it over a lot of the time. But some of that is on us, because we got sped up and rattled in a stretch there where, if we want to be competitive or successful in a game like this, you can’t give it away.”
In the second half, the ‘Noles, who lead the ACC in field-goal percentage defense, tried to double-team Scott whenever he got the ball, and their tactics paid off.
“He’s certainly a marked man,” Bennett said, “and that’s a challenge with that kind of athleticism coming at you.”
With a seven-game winning streak, the ‘Noles are the ACC’s hottest team, but they had problems of their own on offense. Floria State turned the ball over 19 times.
“It was two very determined defensive teams who forced each other into a lot of turnovers,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said.
Scott and Harris led the Cavaliers with 16 points apiece, and the unflappable Brogdon added 10 off the bench. Evans contributed 8 points. All came in the final 6:45 as the 5-11 junior from Hampton almost single-handedly took over the game.
During one stretch of six UVa possessions, Evans had 3 assists and 3 layups.
“The first half I was kind of passive,” Evans said. “I wasn’t really looking to get in the paint. That last eight minutes … I just took it upon myself to be more aggressive on the offensive end and get guys open shots and also make tough shots in the lane.”
With his team trailing 40-29, Bennett called a timeout with 8:33 left and replaced 6-8 sophomore Akil Mitchell with the 6-5 Brogdon. The Cavaliers’ small lineup — Evans, Brogdon, 6-1 Sammy Zeglinski, the 6-6 Harris and the 6-8 Scott — turned around a game the Seminoles had been on the verge of blowing open.
“They were imposing their will on us,” Bennett said. “We talk about that all the time. Whether it was transition baskets, owning us on the glass, being more physical, bumping our guys, we really struggled. And then we got some life. We opened the court up a little more, went with four guards, got some transition buckets.”
Zeglinski, a fifth-year senior, leads UVa with 41 treys this season, but he has struggled with his outside shot for much of the past month, and Saturday brought no relief to the Philadelphia native. Zeglinski was 1 for 5 from beyond the 3-point arc, and each of his misses was an airball.
After his first airball, about six minutes into the game, many of the 11,757 fans jeered Zeglinski every time he touched the ball. But FSU defenders were a bigger problem for Zeglinski than the crowd, in his coach’s opinion.
“They close on you so quick,” Bennett said. “They tip a lot of balls. They get to your shot. You think you’re open and there’s space and” — he snapped his fingers — “they’re on top of your shot. So I think they make you shoot a little quicker and rush it. I think that his shots, they were open. I wouldn’t say they were quite in rhythm. He had to speed it up a little bit. I don’t know if the crowd got into him or not, but I know that he had to set up quicker.”
Zeglinski has made only 12 of his past 45 shots from 3-point range. Asked what approach he would take with Zeglinski, Bennett said, “I’ll encourage him to keep impacting the game with his defense, with his decision-making, with his leadership, and then keep taking good shots. And if they’re there, you gotta take ’em, and if you’re not feeling it, then pass it up.”
With about 20 seconds left and the ‘Hoos down 55-52, Zeglinski drove the left baseline and had a clear path to the basket. But with an FSU post player seemingly poised to block — or at least alter — a layup attempt, Zeglinski passed out to his roommate Harris at the top of the key.
“I thought I had that,” Harris said. “That was a really good look. It was a great pass. Unfortunately it just didn’t go down.”
White led FSU with 13 points, and Gibson added 10. But the 6-5 Snaer, a former McDonald’s All-American, supplied the Seminoles’ biggest baskets, scoring all 8 of his points in the final 4:22. His second trey, from NBA range, made it 53-48 with 1:55 left, and Snaer later scored on a baseline drive to make it 55-50.
FSU has come to expect such heroics from Snaer, who shot down Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium last month with a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“Statistically, it wasn’t overwhelming for him [Saturday],” Bennett said, “but it seems like he’s a guy that has made the big plays for them. He’s a threat. He can shoot the 3-ball and he can put it on the floor. He’s got a mid-range game, so he’s not just one-dimensional where you can crowd him, because he’ll go right by you. He’s big enough to rise up over you. You just gotta make his shots as tough as possible.”
The Seminoles, who start four seniors and a junior, were taller, deeper, more athletic and more experienced than their guests Saturday. And yet FSU was not able to exhale until the final horn sounded.
“I think it really speaks to our heart,” said Mitchell, who tied his career high with 3 steals. “There’s no doubt that we have the heart to pull it out. It’s just the execution. We have to be sounder. If we can just be a little more sure with the basketball, I think we’ll be all right.”
Harris said: “I know a lot of teams would just kind of throw in the towel, especially being on the road when all the momentum is in [FSU’s] favor. I think that’s a great testament to us as a team that we were able to battle and fight back.”
The teams meet again March 1 at John Paul Jones Arena in what will be the final regular-season home game for UVa’s three seniors: Scott, Zeglinski and Assane Sene. The 7-foot Sene, who started Virginia’s first 17 games at center, hasn’t played since Jan. 19, when he suffered an ankle injury that required surgery. He hopes to be back by the end of the regular season.
UP NEXT: UVa hosts ACC foe Wake Forest (2-7, 11-12) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at JPJ. Wake lost 87-76 at NC State on Saturday afternoon.