By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RICHMOND — UVa men’s basketball players began to scatter Saturday night, some riding back to Charlottesville on the team bus and others, including Mike Tobey, Jontel Evans and Evan Nolte, heading home with their families.
None was full of holiday cheer. Not after a dispiriting performance by the Cavaliers, who saw their eight-game winning streak ended by an Old Dominion team that entered with a 1-10 record.
“We should have done a lot of things better,” Nolte, a freshman forward, said after Virginia’s 63-61 loss to ODU at the Richmond Coliseum.
The Wahoos, who had not lost since Nov. 13, fell to 9-3. They won’t play again until Dec. 30, when they host Wofford (6-6) at John Paul Jones Arena. Wofford upset Xavier 56-55 in Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon and has won four of its past five games.
Virginia’s players are due back in Charlottesville on Thursday after their holiday break. They’ll have much to address when they return to practice.
“We’ve showed at times we can be solid, but we’ve also showed at times, even in some of our victories, that we’ve got to keep improving,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “And that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ll have a break now and come back and get ready to go.”
The inaugural Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic featured two games Saturday at the Coliseum. In the first, George Mason — one of three Colonial Athletic Association teams to defeat UVa this season — beat Richmond on a last-second 3-pointer.
For about 25 minutes, the second game had no such drama. The `Hoos led by five at halftime, and with 14:23 remaining, junior swingman Joe Harris buried a 3-pointer to push their lead to 34-24.
“I felt like we had most of the momentum in that first part of the second half,” said Harris, who finished with a team-high 18 points. “We kind of talked about how we didn’t really play as well as we would have liked in the first half, and we really wanted to come out and just be aggressive and put it on `em. And I think for the most part in the beginning of the second half we did a good job defensively, and we were getting stops.”
This has been a humbling season for the Monarchs, who have won 22 or more games seven times under coach Blaine Taylor. Still, they did not quit after falling behind by 10 points Saturday.
“We really just pulled together and said it’s time to be men and grow up,” ODU guard Donte Hill said.
Bennett said: “That was a hungry group. They’re better than their record, and they even had a couple guys out.”
Indeed, the Monarchs were missing two of their top six players: point guard Keenan Palmore (concussion) and forward Nick Wright (illness). But ODU had reserve guard Dimitri Batten, and the 6-3 sophomore from Newport News stunned the Cavaliers with his long-range shooting display.
After freshman guard Aaron Bacote, a cousin of Evans, who remains sidelined with a foot injury, scored on a drive to pull ODU to 34-26, Batten hit two 3-pointers and a floater in little more than a minute to even the game at 34-34.
Batten put the Monarchs ahead for good, at 41-38, with an NBA-length 3-pointer at the 10:12 mark. He followed that with another trey to make it 44-38. Batten finished with a career-best 23 points.
“Dimitri does this [in practice],” Hill said. “None of us were surprised by what he did today.”
Maybe not, but Batten had totaled all of six points in his previous four games. The Cavaliers came away ruing the defensive lapses that allowed Batten to make 5 of 9 shots from 3-point range.
“A few of them were contested,” Harris said, “but a lot of them he just kind of got clean looks, and then from there there were some uncharacteristic things with our defense.”
Virginia struggled on the backboards, too. Led by 6-9, 235-pound senior DeShawn Painter, who played at NC State last season, ODU outrebounded UVa 39-32. Five of Painters’ game-high 11 rebounds came at the offensive end.
Akil Mitchell, a 6-8 junior led the Cavaliers with nine boards. But ODU limited Mitchell to eight points — he came in averaging 13.5 — and all but took Virginia’s other frontcourt starter, 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, out of the game.
Atkins entered with averages of 9.2 points and 5.3 rebounds. He had four and four Saturday, respectively, before fouling out with 2:15 left.
The Monarchs’ big men often were able to push Mitchell and Atkins “a step outside of where those guys were comfortable,” Bennett said. “Again, that’s where the physicality showed. Akil was pretty solid on the glass. Darion did not have one of his better games. He’s been playing well for us, but he struggled tonight. He wasn’t himself.”
With 7:45 left, a Painter free throw gave Old Dominion a 45-38 lead. But the `Hoos battled back behind Harris and Nolte, who finished with a career-high 15 points.
It was still a seven-point game with a minute to play, but Harris pulled Virginia to 55-51 with a trey. After ODU answered with two free throws, a Nolte trey made it 57-54.
Three times in the final 21 seconds Virginia made it a one-point game: first on a Nolte three-point play (58-57), then on two Nolte free throws (60-59), and finally on Teven Jones’ long baseline jumper (62-61) with five seconds left.
Jones’ basket, which he initially believed was a 3-pointer, came on UVa’s penultimate possession. The `Hoos were hoping to set up a 3-point attempt for Nolte, but they were out of timeouts, and “it was a little bit of a broken play at the end,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers then fouled Hill with 3.1 seconds left. With play stopped, the officiating crew reviewed videotape of Jones’ basket to see if his feet had been behind the 3-point line when he put up his shot. The shot was ruled a two-pointer, after which Hill calmly sank his first free throw to make it 63-61.
He missed his second attempt. Nolte tracked down the rebound and quickly passed ahead to Harris, who dribbled across midcourt and then went up for a last-second heave. Hill, however, got his hand on the ball, which fell to the court as time expired.
“He made a good defensive play and was clean on the ball,” Harris said.
The Monarchs, who came in shooting 66.8 percent from the line, made 8 of 10 free throws in the final minute to hold Virginia at bay.
“Their young men played hard and they were physical and did a good job and deserved to win that game, the way they battled,” Bennett said.
His team’s play in its win over Morgan State last week had bothered Bennett, and he pushed his players hard in practice Thursday and Friday. He knew ODU was better than its record would suggest, and his fears were realized Saturday.
“Our guys, I hope they weren’t feeling themselves: `Hey, we’d won however many in a row,’ and all that,” Bennett said. “I would hope that’s not the case. But if it was, this will certainly bring you back to reality. Again, we know that every time out you gotta be ready. That’s college basketball. There were a lot of upsets today I saw. If you’re not focused, that’ll happen.”
Harris said: “We didn’t prepare the right way leading up to this. We had some bad practices. We lacked focus in practice, and it kind of just transitioned over into the game.”
Bennett said: “Either you’re ready or you’re not, and, ODU was.”