By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
OMAHA, Neb. — With 92 seconds left and the outcome long since decided Friday, Tony Bennett sent Doug Browman and Akil Mitchell into the game, and fifth-year seniors Sammy Zeglinski and Mike Scott walked off the court for the final time as UVa men’s basketball players.
Each slowly made his way down the bench, exchanging hugs and handshakes with teammates and coaches.
This was not the exit either had hoped for. But in the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in five years, the Cavaliers unraveled in the second half against the taller, deeper, more athletic and more talented Florida Gators.
The final score in this West Region second-round game was 71-45, Florida: Virginia’s most one-sided loss of the season. The seventh-seeded Gators (24-10) advance to meet No. 15 seed Norfolk State, which stunned No. 2 seed Missouri in the second game Friday at CenturyLink Center.
The 10th-seeded Cavaliers finished 22-10. The 45 points tied Virginia’s season low and were the fewest in the program’s 39 games in the NCAA tournament.
The Wahoos shot only 38.3 percent from the floor against Florida and were outrebounded 39-23. Virginia was especially cold from the perimeter, making only 3 of 18 attempts from beyond the arc. Zeglinski was 2 for 10 on 3-pointers; sophomore swingman Joe Harris, 0 for 5.
“Certainly we were thoroughly outplayed,” Bennett. “I told our guys I felt like we were better than we showed, but certainly I give the credit to Florida. They were the aggressor, they got the ball either in the paint or to the paint, and we didn’t have an answer.”
As he walked to the bench, Zeglinski said later, his mind filled with “a lot of memories. I’ve been a part of Virginia for the past five years. Some good memories, some bad memories. I was fortunate to have a chance to play for Coach Bennett and serve this team, and it was tough to end this way. But I liked what I was a part of.”
“Just like Sammy said, the memories definitely came to my mind,” Scott said, “playing with Coach, how we all have grown.”
The Wahoos’ progress has been pronounced under Bennett. They were coming off a 10-18 season when he replaced Dave Leitao the spring of 2009. Virginia finished 15-16 in 2009-10 and 16-15 last season.
In year No. 3 of the Bennett era, the ‘Hoos posted their most victories since 1994-95, when they won 25 games. Picked fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, UVa made the prognosticators look good, finishing tied for fourth with NC State and Miami. But the year was anything but routine for the Cavaliers.
They opened practice in October with 11 scholarship players, one of whom, freshman swingman Paul Jesperson, entered the season planning to redshirt. But after the team returned in late December from a trip to the Pacific Northwest, reserves KT Harrell and James Johnson, unhappy with their playing time, left the program.
Suddenly, Virginia no longer had the luxury of redshirting Jesperson, and he made his college debut two days after Christmas. Bennett did not have nine scholarship players for long. On Jan. 19, starting center Assane Sene fractured a bone in his right ankle, and the 7-0 senior never returned to action this season.
On Feb. 11, Harris, the team’s second-leading scorer, broke a bone in his non-shooting hand in a game at North Carolina. Harris played the rest of the season with his left hand heavily wrapped, a display of toughness that won the admiration of his teammates and coaches, but his effectiveness, not surprisingly, dipped.
Finally, sixth man Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-5 freshman, had major foot surgery late last month. With Brogdon out, Bennett had seven healthy scholarship players for the final two regular-season games, the ACC tournament and the NCAAs.
“A lot did happen,” Bennett said Friday when asked about the tumultuous season, “and I haven’t been part of something quite like this, just with the numbers. The way this ended was hard … I really appreciate what Sammy and Mike contributed to the program and what they stood for. There’s no greater thing for a coach than to see the young men, the light come on for them and get it and mature off the court, and then have them reach a goal of theirs, as far as getting to the [NCAA] tournament. Now, certainly we wanted to play better and do well, but it was a privilege to be part of that for them.”
In front of a crowd that included Bennett’s parents and his two sisters, as well as UVa president Teresa Sullivan and other University officials, the ‘Hoos could not have scripted a much better start Friday. Mitchell, a 6-8 sophomore, opened the scoring with a dunk, off a slick pass by Zeglinski, and a jump hook by Scott put Virginia up 12-4 with 13:31 left in the first half.
It was 14-8 at the second TV timeout. But a 9-0 run gave the Gators a 22-18 lead, and Virginia’s lack of depth limited Bennett’s options as the game went on.
In the first half, the starters — Scott, Zeglinski, Harris, junior point guard Jontel Evans and Mitchell — accounted for 90 of Virginia’s 100 minutes. Florida’s starters totaled only 67.
Florida led 30-22 at the break, despite having missed 14 of 15 shots from 3-point range. The Gators’ full-court pressure rattled Virginia, which had 7 first-half turnovers, and their 10-0 edge in second-chance points tilted the game in their favor.
By game’s end, seven Gators had played at least 22 minutes apiece, including reserve forward Casey Prather, who missed only one shot from the floor and scored a career-high 14 points. Virginia’s scoring off the bench consisted of a late trey by Jesperson.
The Cavaliers, Florida coach Billy Donovan said, are “obviously not a deep team, and I thought our offense over a period of time and, probably the press, wore them down.”
Donovan “was definitely making a lot of substitutions, and they just kept bringing in wave after wave [of fresh players],” Zeglinski said.
The Gators’ “energy level stayed at a high level,” Bennett said, “and I think we probably wore down, and it really showed up defensively as much as offensively … That’s the most I’ve seen the ball touch the paint against our defense, whether it’s just a post feed, ball-screen defense or just guys beating us off the dribble. We didn’t have an answer, and that was frustrating because that’s something we have established and that has been good for us all year.”
As has been their custom under Donovan, the Gators did not hesitate to bomb away from 3-point range — they came in having shot 841 treys — but they rarely found the mark Friday, making only 4 of 23 attempts from beyond the arc. Inside the 3-point line, however, they shot a blistering 80 percent (24 for 30).
Florida center Patric Young was 6 for 6 from the floor, and Prather and guards Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Bradley Beal encountered little resistance on their drives to the basket.
Evans, a member of the ACC’s All-Defensive team, said he had not expected the Gators to be so proficient in that phase of the game.
“Not at all,” he said. “From the film all we’d really seen was them jacking [up 3-pointers]. Today, the 3s weren’t working, but they got into the paint, and that’s what really hurt us.
“Their guards were getting to the paint at will. It was just really disappointing, especially my defensive performance. Walker, he’s a great guard, I tip my hat off to him. I just felt like he touched the paint too many times. I’m too good of a defender to let that happen.”
Scott, a first-team All-ACC selection, led the Cavaliers with 15 points and 6 rebounds and tied his career high with 3 steals. In five of his previous six games, Scott had scored at least 20 points, and UVa could have used another such outburst from him Friday. But the Gators swarmed around Scott whenever he got the ball, and nothing came easily for him.
If there was a sequence that typified Virginia’s afternoon, it came midway through the second half. Zeglinski stole the ball and then passed ahead to Scott for what, in most cases, would have been a transition basket. This time, though, Scott fumbled the ball out of the bounds.
Like the rest of the team, Scott struggled defensively Friday, but “he’s carried us all year,” Bennett said. “He’s had a terrific year and there wasn’t a lot of help for him, but I think he will remember this senior year as a special one, as I will.”
Rest assured, it was a year no one associated with the program is soon to forget.
“This season’s been crazy,” Harris said, “but it’s definitely been one of the best times of my life, just getting to know some of these guys and build the chemistry that we have, because I felt like we were a really close team all the way around. Every road trip was fun. All the games and getting to the NCAA tournament, it’s stuff that you’ll remember forever.
“The only thing I’m disappointed about is the fact that we have to let Sam and Mike go out like this. It’s a terrible feeling coming into the locker room knowing this is their last college game of their career, and for us to not put up more of a fight for them and not go down swinging.
“It was an accomplishment to get here, but this is not how you want it to end. But for the guys that are returning, we’ll build on this. This loss will be motivation for us in the offseason. I think these guys set up the foundation for what we want the Virginia program to be.”
With Sene at center, and a healthy group around him, the ‘Hoos were 15-2. Without Sene, and with the subsequent injuries to Harris and Brogdon, UVa’s margin for error became perilously thin.
“And that’s why I was very excited and impressed that our guys could stay together and stick it out and fight to get into this tournament,” Bennett said.