By Jeff White
CLEMSON, S.C. — The University of Virginia men’s basketball team made it to mid-February before dropping back-to-back games. But now, after losing at North Carolina and at Clemson, No. 22 UVa finds itself in uncharted territory.
The Cavaliers are down to seven healthy scholarship players — an eighth, Joe Harris, played Tuesday night with a broken left hand — and that’s far from ideal for a team with NCAA tournament aspirations.
“Every game out is gonna be a battle,” third-year coach Tony Bennett acknowledged after Virginia’s 60-48 loss to Clemson, and “there’s some challenges there. But we’ll keep working at it, and we still got some good basketball left in us. I know that.”
The Wahoos (6-5, 19-6) did not play a lot of good basketball Tuesday night at Littlejohn Coliseum. Bennett was incensed about the officiating during a critical sequence of the second half — television replays backed him up — but he also knew his team contributed heavily to its third loss in four games.
“If you look at the stat sheet, you know the telltale number is those 18 turnovers,” Bennett said. “In a game with this few possessions, that’s 18 times we don’t get a chance to get a shot.”
Three players had three turnovers each for Virginia. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, in his first college start, had four. Only twice this season has UVa had more turnovers: in losses to TCU and Florida State.
“Some of it was carelessness, and some of it was certainly active defense by Clemson,” Bennett said. “They have quick hands.”
Led by junior point guard Jontel Evans, who made 8 of 11 field-goal attempts and matched his career high with 17 points, the ‘Hoos shot 50 percent from the floor Tuesday night. From 3-point range, though, they were a dismal 3 for 16. Harris, playing three days after breaking his non-shooting hand against North Carolina, was 0 for 4 from long range, and fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski, stuck in the worst slump of his UVa career, was 1 for 5.
This game bore little resemblance to the teams’ first meeting, Jan. 31 at John Paul Jones Arena. In that game, Harris hit 5 of 6 shots from beyond the arc, and his marksmanship opened things up in and around the paint for All-America candidate Mike Scott. The 6-8, 237-pound fifth-year senior led all scorers with 23 points in Virginia’s 65-61 win.
Clemson held Scott to 13 points Tuesday night. It helped the Tigers (5-6, 13-12) to have 6-9, 225-pound junior Milton Jennings, who sat out the game in Charlottesville. But Clemson coach Brad Brownell said his team’s defensive strategy against Scott didn’t change much.
“Nothing drastic,” Brownell said, “other than just having a little better feel for how good he is. Our guys understand when you play against a guy, as opposed to you telling them he is a good player. When you go up against a guy and you know he’s a good player after playing him, you know you’d better compete and be ready or you’ll get embarrassed.”
Six players logged virtually all of the minutes for the Cavaliers at Littlejohn. Eight Tigers played at least 10 minutes apiece.
“Obviously, Harris’ hand was bothering him a little bit,” Brownell said, “so we felt like this was a game where we could wear them down a little bit. I thought that on both ends of the court we needed to push them.”
Ballhandling errors plagued UVa in each half. After committing 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes, Virginia was fortunate to be tied 24-24 at the break. The ‘Hoos went ahead twice early in the second half, but Clemson took the lead for good on a jumper by reserve Devin Coleman at the 17:55 mark.
With 8 minutes left, the Tigers’ lead was six, and the Cavaliers were reeling. But Evans’ three-point play made it 42-39, and after Jennings’ putback pushed Clemson’s lead back to five, Evans scored on another drive to pull Virginia to 44-41.
Then came the non-call that had the Cavaliers’ coaching staff fuming. Brogdon, who started in Harris’ place, stole the ball and started a fast break. The ball came to Evans, who went up for a layup. It missed, in part because Clemson guard Tanner Smith’s arm hit Evans’ head.
“I felt like it was contact,” Evans said. “I’m not a good actor, and my head went the other way. But we’re on the road, and sometimes you don’t get calls like that, so you just have to play through it.”
Harris was there to collect the offensive rebound. A few feet away stood official Tony Greene, who saw Harris go up for a putback attempt. Clemson forward Devin Booker, trying to block the shot, instead hit Harris’ right arm, knocking the ball loose.
No whistle. The Tigers tracked down the basketball, and moments later Smith scored to make it 46-41, a significant swing in a close game. On the sideline, Bennett glared.
“He has absolutely every right to be irate after that call,” analyst Jay Williams said on the ESPNU broadcast. “I mean, that is an absolute foul. Tony Greene, the ref on the baseline, you have to make that call.”
It wasn’t clear Tuesday morning if Harris, a 6-6 sophomore who is UVa’s second-leading scorer, would be available that night. He played with most of his left hand covered by a plastic shell and foam padding, and the injury clearly bothered him in the first half. Harris looked more comfortable in the second half — his jump shot pulled Virginia to 38-34 with 12:34 left — but he was not the player who torched the Tigers at JPJ.
As the swelling goes down in Harris’ hand, he should be able to remove some of the padding, and that will give him more mobility.
“He’ll get better,” Bennett said, “and it’s the best we can do. I’m just thankful he could get out there and give us some minutes, but he wasn’t himself, and I didn’t expect him to be.”
Harris finished with 2 points, 2 rebounds and 3 turnovers in 21 minutes.
The more he plays with his hand wrapped, Harris said, the “better I’ll be able to get used to it. I’ve made progress even since practice [Monday night].”
Evans said: “I feel like his effort tonight was good. He was kind of worried about his hand in the first half, but I feel like in the second half he got comfortable, and he hit a big shot for us, and I just feel like as the season goes on, he’ll get more and more comfortable with playing with that brace.”
For the season, Scott leads Virginia in scoring at 16.9 ppg, and Harris is next at 12.0. Zeglinski remains third, at 8.0, but he’s missed 24 of his past 31 shots from the floor. Zeglinski played a game-high 38 minutes Tuesday night and had 6 assists, 2 steals and relatively few turnovers (2). He didn’t attempt a shot in the second half, though, and with Harris injured, the Cavaliers don’t have many other perimeter threats.
Evans does his best work inside the arc. He scored 12 points Saturday in Virginia’s blowout loss at North Carolina — his high in an ACC game — and then easily topped that against Clemson.
“We’re always looking for that third scorer,” Bennett said. “We got it in Jontel, but … we didn’t have the second scorer.”
Evans is averaging only 6.9 points, but he has made huge strides offensively during the second half of the season.
“He’s improving, he really is, and he’s making pretty good decisions,” Bennett said, “and he’s so powerful and quick that he can get to the lane, and he’s worked on his touch and trying to create.”
To see the countless hours he’s spent in the gym starting to pay off is “kind of gratifying,” Evans said, “but it doesn’t really matter, because we’re not winning. I can score as many points as I can, and if we don’t win, it just doesn’t matter.”
The Cavaliers’ next chance to win comes Saturday at JPJ, where they host Maryland (4-6, 14-10) at 1 p.m. The Terrapins lost their starting point guard, Pe’Shon Howard, to a torn ACL last week. UVa has been without its starting center, Assane Sene, since Jan. 19, when he hurt his right ankle against Georgia Tech.
The injuries to Sene and Harris have left UVa with few options, but “it’s what we have,” Bennett said Tuesday night. “We gotta keep trucking.”
In a somber locker room, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell echoed his head coach.
“I think we just gotta remain confident and get back to doing the things that we’ve been doing,” Mitchell said. “We’re hitting some adversity. Joe’s hand is messed up, and Assane’s out. Everything’s kind of going the wrong way, so I think we just need to settle in and remain confident that we’re a good basketball team when we do the things we gotta do.
“We’ve got good players. We’ve got a good system that’s proven to win. We just gotta stick to it at this point.”