By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — The plan was for the UVa men’s basketball team to wake up here Saturday morning and play at Philips Arena that afternoon, and the players and coaches packed accordingly before leaving Charlottesville on Wednesday.
The plan changed when Virginia, the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament, fell 67-64 to No. 5 seed NC State in a quarterfinal Friday afternoon.
The loss means that for the 17th straight year, the ACC semifinals will not include UVa. And while the Wolfpack (22-11) began preparing for its Saturday clash with top-seeded North Carolina (28-4), the Cavaliers (22-9) headed home Friday evening to await their postseason fate.
They’re likely to get good news Sunday night when the NCAA tournament field is announced. The Wahoos haven’t played in the NCAAs since 2007.
“Everybody always says you look at the body of work, and hopefully [UVa is] in good shape,” third-year coach Tony Bennett said. “We’re just going to wait, and hopefully we’ve shown enough and competed and we’ll be one of the fortunate ones to be chosen.”
Twice in the final two minutes, UVa had 3-point attempts that would have tied the game. The first, by junior point guard Jontel Evans, missed badly with 1:40 left. The second, by sophomore swingman Joe Harris, who made both of UVa’s treys Friday, was from NBA range on the left wing. It hit the front of the rim with 12 seconds remaining, and State rebounded.
With 7.2 seconds left, Wolfpack guard Lorenzo Brown’s two free throws made it 67-62, effectively sealing a victory for a team that may have wrapped up an at-large invitation to the NCAAs.
“This is a big win — a tough, grinding win — against, I think, a really good team and a hard team to play against, with the way they play,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said.
The teams met once in the regular season, Jan. 28 in Raleigh, N.C. In that game, a defensive stop in the final seconds allowed UVa to escape with a 61-60 victory. The Cavaliers were outrebounded 42-25 at the RBC Center, but they held NC State to 40.4-percent accuracy from the floor.
In the rematch, the Pack had its way with one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. State shot 54 percent from the floor, the highest UVa has allowed this season. Gottfried’s team shot nearly 60 percent from the floor in the first half.
“The way they got some layups in transition, a couple buckets at the rim, we just were a half a step behind,” Bennett said. “I thought we made some adjustments and were better in the second half — though they still shot close to 50 [percent] — but we always talk about trying to make the opponent earn, and those easy ones cost us early. We had to fight to get it back to even, and when we did, they made some plays down the stretch.”
The game could not have started more auspiciously for UVa. Fourteen seconds in, the ‘Hoos got a three-point play from sophomore forward Akil Mitchell, and consecutive baskets by fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, Evans and fifth-year senior shooting guard Sammy Zeglinski pushed the lead to 9-3.
But one of UVa’s worst defensive stretches of the season followed. State ran off 14 straight points before Evans’ layup pulled Virginia to 17-11.
“Very uncharacteristic, and I feel like that’s what killed us,” Evans said of the Cavaliers’ defensive lapses. “That was the difference in the game today. I feel like if we were tougher and more physical and more sound in that span, it would be a different ball game.”
Zeglinski said: “We fell in a hole early. We let them go on that run. We were playing catch-up the rest of the way, and we couldn’t really get over the hump.”
When the ‘Hoos beat the Pack in Raleigh, they had 6-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon, a talented freshman who was the team’s sixth man for most of the season. A foot injury ended Brogdon’s season late last month, leaving UVa, which had been without its best center, Assane Sene, since Jan. 19, with seven healthy scholarship players.
“We knew that our margin of error was small coming in,” Mitchell said. “You get to the end of the regular season and you’re playing five guys 38 minutes a game, and your margin of error shrinks that much more. Then you move on into the tournament, and [other] teams are starting to jell, and they’re starting to pick up their efforts, and it gets that much smaller. We just gotta step it up.”
Of UVa’s starters, only Harris (34) played fewer than 37 minutes Friday. One of Bennett’s reserves, 6-8 freshman Darion Atkins, picked up two fouls in a 93-second span of the first half and didn’t play after intermission. The other reserve, 6-6 freshman Paul Jesperson, missed the only shot he took in his 11 minutes and had a costly turnover that State turned into a layup.
Harris finished with 18 points, his best effort since he broke his non-shooting hand Feb. 11 against North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Like his coaches and teammates, Harris refused to use fatigue as an excuse for UVa’s loss.
“We’re a real experienced group, and guys have been around and played a ton of minutes throughout their careers, and I feel like our coaching staff does a good job on our preparation and practices and that sort of thing,” Harris said. “We’re not over-using or [tiring] guys out. I feel like we do have a lot of energy, and I really don’t think fatigue has been an issue as much as people might think throughout the season, regardless of our numbers.”
State used only seven players, too, but their minutes were more evenly distributed. Reserves DeShawn Painter and Alex Johnson played 21 and 16 minutes, respectively.
Sophomore power forward CJ Leslie made 9 of 11 shots from the floor and led State with 19 points and 14 rebounds.
“He really took it to us today,” Scott said.
Brown added 15 points and a game-high 8 assists for the Pack. UVa held 6-6 junior Scott Wood, one of the nation’s most feared outside shooters, to two field goals, but “both of them were huge,” Zeglinski noted.
The first came with four-tenths of a second left in the first half, after Virginia had battled back to take a 33-32 lead. A communication breakdown between Harris and Evans left Wood free for an instant, and he went up for a 3-pointer after getting the ball. Zeglinski challenged the shot and made slight contact, but Wood fell to the floor, and the whistle blew.
The shot dropped through the net, and Wood added the free throw to send the Pack into the break up 36-33.
“Scott’s shot, I thought, gave us some pep in the step going to the locker room, which we didn’t have,” Gottfried said.
State led 55-49 when Brown missed a shot in the lane with 6:18 left. Mitchell tracked down the long rebound, but Leslie ripped the ball away and then passed out to Wood, who buried a trey from the left wing to make it a nine-point game.
“Those were two pivotal plays,” Bennett said of Wood’s shots. “But again, I never question our guys’ ability to battle, and we had our opportunity at the end to tie it or push ahead, and we got some good looks and didn’t capitalize on them.”
Zeglinski, 4 for 5 from beyond the arc in Virginia’s win in Raleigh, contributed 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals Friday, with only 1 turnover, but he missed all three of his 3-point attempts.
“I thought Sammy did a good job defensively on Wood,” Bennett said. “He really trailed and bothered him. Offensively, he got a couple of good looks. Didn’t quite get them, but I think [the Pack was] more aware of where he was.”
State was fully aware of Scott, the second-leading vote-getter in All-ACC balloting and the conference leader in field-goal percentage. The 6-8, 237-pound Scott missed more shots than usual — he was 9 for 23 from the floor — but still finished with 23 points.
“He’s a great, great player,” Leslie said. “You can’t anything away from him. He hit some tough, tough shots.”
Scott grabbed 10 rebounds. In most games, that would have led the Cavaliers, but the 6-8 Mitchell came down with a career-best 12 against State. Mitchell also contributed 10 points — he was 4 for 4 from the floor, 2 for 2 from the line — for the first double-double of his UVa career.
“He did a good job,” Bennett said. “Mike draws so much attention offensively, so I thought Akil capitalized, whether it was a drive through the lane when they’re hugging Mike, or getting on the offensive glass. Akil has the physical tools to do that, and when he decides he’s going to really battle and make those plays, that helps us out a lot, and he really looked good, and I thought he did a pretty good individual job at times with his defense. He still has room for improvement, but the stat line for him was promising.”
The ‘Hoos trailed for the final 18:59 on Friday. The final horn signaled the start of a 48-hour waiting period for UVa that will end with the unveiling of the NCAA tournament field.
“It’s been a great year for us, and I just feel like we deserve to be in that tournament,” Evans said. “I’m just very eager, anxious and excited at the same time.”