By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Florida State scored the first basket of the second half Thursday night to stretch its lead over UVa to 11 points at John Paul Jones Arena.
Over the next 15 minutes and 10 seconds, the Cavaliers outscored the 22nd-ranked Seminoles 38-16. UVa, which had only seven scholarship players available for this ACC basketball game, may not have had a more impressive stretch in its three seasons under coach Tony Bennett.
“We played good ball,” Bennett said Friday afternoon at JPJ. He loved how his players “approached the second half, with their tenacity. They didn’t let the game come to them, they went and got it on both ends of the floor, without forcing, and they put themselves in a great spot to win.”
Alas, the 24th-ranked Wahoos couldn’t sustain it. The Seminoles scored 16 of the game’s final 18 points to secure a 63-60 victory that left the ‘Hoos in disbelief.
“It came down to making some plays,” Bennett said, “plays that they made and plays we didn’t.”
Sleep did not come easily for UVa’s coaches Thursday night. Bennett went over the game again and again, wondering what, if anything, he could have done to avert the collapse.
“You watch the film and you stew,” Bennett said. “I told our guys, ‘If you don’t feel it, you’re not alive, and you don’t belong.’ There’s a pit in your stomach, but you know you gotta respond and rally and come back ready.”
The Cavaliers returned to the court Friday afternoon for a practice that lasted less than an hour. The resilience of youth was evident, as UVa’s players traded jokes and shared laughs during post-practice shooting contests.
“It seems like younger people bounce back quicker than older people,” Bennett said with a smile.
The ‘Hoos will practice at JPJ again Saturday before busing up to College Park, Md. This session, too, will be intense, but it won’t be a marathon.
“You gotta prepare, but you gotta be smart,” Bennett said, especially with so few players available.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, UVa (21-8 overall, 8-7 ACC) closes the regular season against Maryland (16-13, 6-9) at Comcast Center, and freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon may miss his second straight game. Brogdon, who has been UVa’s sixth man, sat out the FSU game with an injured left foot. In his absence four players logged 35 minutes or more for the ‘Hoos. Another, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell, played 29 minutes.
“When you’re out there playing, you don’t really notice it a whole lot. Everybody’s got adrenaline flowing,” sophomore swingman Joe Harris, who played 35 minutes, said Thursday night.
“But it would have been nice having Malcolm playing and been able to have his presence there on the floor, just to be able to give some guys some breaks and that sort of thing. But we’ve got to make do with what we’ve got right now.”
Harris, a right-hander, has been playing with a broken left hand for the past three weeks. Senior center Assane Sene, who started UVa’s first 17 games, hasn’t played since having surgery on his right ankle Jan. 20. (The Cavaliers are 6-6 without Sene). And now Brogdon is hurt, another blow to a team that in late December lost guard KT Harrell and big man James Johnson, who left the program largely because they weren’t playing as much as they wanted.
But even short-handed, All-ACC candidate Mike Scott noted Thursday night, the Cavaliers were in position to beat Florida State, and they nearly upset then-No. 7 North Carolina last weekend at JPJ.
“We’re just trying to fight through our injuries,” Scott said after totaling 28 points and 10 rebounds against the ‘Noles.
Virginia and Maryland are meeting for the second time in little more than two weeks. In a Feb. 18 game in which Brogdon scored 14 points, his high in ACC play, the ‘Hoos crushed the Terrapins 71-44 at JPJ.
Three nights later, in Blacksburg, UVa edged Virginia Tech 61-59. Since then, however, the Cavaliers have dropped two straight, and that heightens the significance of the regular-season finale.
A victory would secure the No. 4 seed — and a coveted first-round bye — for UVa in the ACC tournament at Atlanta. Lose to the Terps, and the ‘Hoos would be seeded No. 6 or No. 7 and would have to play Thursday, the tourney’s opening day.
And then, of course, there’s the not-so-small matter of the NCAA tournament, a party to which Virginia hasn’t been invited since the 2006-07 season. A win over FSU would have significantly enhanced UVa’s postseason résumé. The Cavaliers squandered that opportunity, but a victory in College Park would put them on firmer ground.
“We addressed [the NCAAs] as a team,” Bennett said, “saying that’s almost got to motivate you to go after this more. You can’t let it make you be concerned or tentative. You gotta want to get there, you gotta fight for it, and it’s never going to be easy. To know exactly what it’ll take is always a mystery.”
After the game Thursday night, UVa players talked about facing Maryland in the aftermath of such a painful loss. The Cavaliers know the Terps are determined to avenge the humiliating defeat they suffered in Charlottesville.
“It’s a big challenge,” junior point guard Jonte Evans said. “We’re up for it. This team has battled through a lot of things this season. We’re not giving up.”
Harris said: “Each game from here on out is huge. We know how badly we need to get this one. It’ll be Maryland’s Senior Night, and it’s a rivalry game, so obviously it’s going to be a tough game. But we’re looking forward to it and ready to put [the FSU loss] aside.”