By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Some 30 minutes after the final horn sounded at John Paul Jones Arena on Thursday night, Sammy Zeglinski still wore a dazed expression. On the verge of a momentous victory on Senior Night, the UVa men’s basketball team had unraveled against No. 22 Florida State, and now Zeglinski was struggling to make sense of his final regular-season game at JPJ.
“I’m still trying to comprehend it,” Zeglinski said after No. 24 UVa’s 63-60 loss. “I’m still in shock a little bit how we lost that game. I thought we had it, and it just kind of slipped away at the end. I don’t know. I don’t know what else to say about it.”
Zeglinski could have been speaking for everyone associated with the UVa program. With freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon on the bench in street clothes, his injured left foot in a protective boot, the Cavaliers (21-8 overall, 8-7 ACC) are down to seven scholarship players, one of whom, sophomore swingman Joe Harris, has been playing with a broken left hand since Feb. 11.
Yet after a dreadful first-half performance, UVa erased an 11-point deficit Thursday night and appeared poised to send seniors Zeglinski, Mike Scott and Assane Sene — who has been sidelined since Jan. 19 with an ankle injury — out with a win that would have significantly enhanced the team’s postseason résumé.
Instead, the Wahoos suffered a loss that ranks among the most painful in the program’s history.
“We just gave that one away,” said Scott, who was magnificent in defeat, finishing with 28 points and 10 rebounds, both game highs.
“That was our last chance to play one of the top teams in the ACC [in the regular season]. That was our last chance to beat one of the best teams, and we had it, but we gave it away.”
After FSU forward Bernard James was ejected for kicking Harris as they lay on the court after a collision, Scott hit two free throws to put UVa up 56-47 with 4:58 to play. The Cavaliers retained possession, and after another FSU forward, Okaro White, was called for his fifth foul, Scott sank two more free throws to make it 58-47.
The crowd of 11,807, sensing victory, roared its approval. But Virginia’s only points the rest of the way came on junior point guard Jontel Evans’ two free throws at the 3:01 mark. UVa turned the ball over four times in the final four minutes. The Seminoles, meanwhile, scored on a three-point play and hit three 3-pointers, the last a contested shot from the right wing by sophomore Ian Miller, who was well-defended by Zeglinski.
“They just went on a crazy run,” Scott said.
Miller, a reserve guard from Charlotte, N.C., where he played AAU ball with Akil Mitchell, now a UVa sophomore, made a career-five 3-pointers Thursday night. Miller’s fifth dropped through with eight-tenths of a second left to give FSU its seventh straight victory over UVa.
“He definitely didn’t get a good look at it,” Zeglinski said. “It was a tough shot, but he made it. I just wanted to contest it and not foul.”
And so ended a game that evoked memories of UVa’s epic collapse against Miami in the first round of last year’s ACC tournament. In that game, Virginia led by 10 points with 40 seconds left in regulation and ended up losing in overtime.
“I was just thinking about that when I walked into the locker room,” Evans said. “Similar feeling. We just let it get away from us.”
With 3:17 left, Miller completed a three-point play to pull FSU to 58-52. Then came a critical sequence. With the Seminoles (20-9, 11-4) pressing full-court, Harris was called for an offensive foul by official Mike Eades, who ruled that Harris had pushed off Miller to get open.
“I hope it was a good call, because it was certainly a pivotal play,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said in his postgame press conference.
When he heard the whistle, Harris said, he figured the foul was on Miller, “because I thought he kind of sold it, almost to the point where he might have been called for flopping. I don’t know. Just one of those plays, I guess, that could go either way.”
When play resumed, the ‘Noles inbounded the ball to Miller, whom UVa had left open on the right wing. His trey made it 58-55 and meant that FSU had scored six points in a two-second span.
Still, Virginia had opportunities late. The ‘Hoos led 60-57 when Zeglinski missed a 3-point attempt with 2:02 left. The score was 60-60 when Scott missed a jump shot with 1:05 to play, but the 6-8 Mitchell grabbed the offensive rebound, giving the Cavaliers a fresh possession.
This one didn’t end any better. With the shot clock winding down and the ‘Noles swarming around Scott, Zeglinski drove into the lane and passed to Mitchell near the basket. The pass was behind Mitchell, however, and went out of bounds with 35.9 seconds left.
“We had our chances,” Bennett said, “and we turned it over a couple times when we had the ball down there. We fought hard to get to that spot, and then gave it away. And they made some plays too.”
Against one of the nation’s premier defensive teams, UVa finished with 15 turnovers. Harris had a career-high five, Zeglinski had four, and Scott had three.
“I guess we were trying to force passes that weren’t there,” Harris said.
The ‘Hoos had one last chance to send the game into overtime, but Zeglinski’s running 50-footer at the buzzer hit the backboard and bounced away. UVa’s players walked off the court in disbelief, bitterly disappointed that they had allowed FSU to spoil what could have been a magical Senior Night.
“Mike and Sam have had such great careers here, and for us to not be able to send them out with a win, it’s pretty upsetting,” said Harris, who finished with 9 points and a career-high 5 assists.
“Obviously it’s sad enough not having [Sene] out there to play his last game, and then for us to not come away with a win for these guys who have put so much into this program and who’ve been through so many ups and downs, I’m obviously very upset by it.”
And now the Cavaliers must regroup and prepare for their regular-season finale: a Sunday date with Maryland (16-13, 6-9) in College Park. The teams meet at 2 p.m. at Comcast Center.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a little rough,” Mitchell said Thursday night, “but we’ve been through this kind of thing before. We’ve got good leadership, so I expect us to bounce back.”
In the locker room after the game, Bennett said, “I told the guys, ‘I know this stings. I wish I had words to make you feel a little better. It stings, but you’re gonna be all right. You don’t have a ton of games left. You tapped into the assertiveness against a team like Florida State that you better have, or you won’t even be in the game.’ ”
For a team trying to improve its credentials for the NCAA tournament, a victory over the ‘Noles “would have been a great one to get,” Bennett acknowledged.
“We just gotta try to play well against Maryland. I can’t tell you what exactly is required for us [to make the NCAAs], where we’re at in terms of that. I know we gotta play well, and we’re capable of it. We’re down to a seven-man rotation as of now, so that puts on a lot of stress on us to play so hard and last as long as we can. But be that as it may, that’s what we have to do. Get ready to go on Sunday and hopefully spoil their Senior Night.”
When the teams met Feb. 18 at JPJ, UVa humbled Maryland 71-44. The Cavaliers expect more resistance from the Terrapins in College Park.
Scott said: “Definitely I’m going to tell my teammates, ‘Don’t sleep on ’em because we beat ’em pretty bad here. It’s going to be their Senior Night, and they’re going to be amped up like the crowd was tonight for us.’ ”
On a night when he set a new career high for points in an ACC game, Scott took only one shot in the final four minutes. The Seminoles had a lot to do with that.
“They were making it really hard” for Scott to get the ball, Bennett noted. “When they were laying on top of him like that and closing it down, that’s when [other players have to] be able to make a play, because he was drawing so much attention. We couldn’t even get a pass into him the last couple of times.”
Evans said: “We’re trying to get him touches. They’re doubling him. He’s fighting for position. It’s kind of hard, but we’ve got to be better at giving him the ball, double-team or not.”
Asked about Scott, Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton joked that his team “held him to 28 points tonight. He is just a great player. He’s poised, has great hands, he doesn’t have to make layups. He has a knack for being able to score from anywhere from 16 [feet] in. He has been probably the most difficult guy for us to defend in our league. We had to come up with all kinds of schemes, and obviously it didn’t work too well tonight … We were very fortunate to come away with a victory.”