By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It was a somber group that trudged onto the UVa men’s basketball team’s charter bus as midnight approached Wednesday. Under any circumstances, the early-morning drive back to John Paul Jones Arena would have seemed long to the Cavaliers, but a victory over ACC rival Wake Forest would have made the trip more tolerable.
Instead, they had three-and-a-half hours to dwell on a tremendously disappointing loss. Three nights after soaring to a nine-point victory over North Carolina at JPJ, the Wahoos stumbled on Tobacco Road, falling 55-52 to the Demon Deacons.
“We defended our tails off from wire to wire,” said embattled Wake coach Jeff Bzdelik. “Just a great win for our basketball team.”
That the Deacons (8-6, 1-1) defeated UVa at Lawrence Joel Coliseum is not shocking. After all, the `Hoos entered the game having dropped nine straight to Wake there. Still, nobody expected Virginia (11-4, 1-1) to play so poorly at both ends of the floor.
“I think this tape will be a hard one to watch,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said, “because you can’t pinpoint that, well, it was just this or just that. It was a lot of areas.”
The Cavaliers turned the ball over 17 times. They shot 36.4 percent from the floor. They didn’t make a 3-pointer until the game’s final minute. They missed point-blank shots and uncontested jumpers. They broke down repeatedly on defense — the foundation of Bennett’s program — and allowed Wake to shoot 52 percent from the floor in the first half. They often looked two steps slower than the Deacons.
“I think we were outplayed for the majority of that game, 35 minutes,” Bennett said.
Virginia, which trailed by 14 with 10:05 left, managed to claw its way back into the game, even as its turnovers mounted. In the final 55 seconds, the Cavaliers hit three treys to trim Wake’s lead to a single point, but that comeback did not make up for the mistakes that preceded it.
“I told our guys, they battled hard to get back to that spot, but don’t feel too good about that,” Bennett said. “I think you gotta look at the majority of that game and learn from that, and grow from it. We have to.
“We hit some tough shots, there were some plays down the stretch, some nice offensive rebounds [that helped] close that gap, but in the meat of the game, the guts of the game, there wasn’t enough there.”
Freshman center Mike Tobey came off the bench to make 6 of 9 shots from the floor, score 14 points and grab a career-best seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Another freshman reserve, swingman Justin Anderson, corralled eight boards (and scored five points) in only 17 minutes. Akil Mitchell posted a double-double, with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Still, like most of his teammates, the 6-8 junior was far from perfect Wednesday night.
Sophomore Darion Atkins, who started alongside Mitchell in the frontcourt, was ineffective, totaling two points and two rebounds in 16 minutes. Another starter, sophomore Paul Jesperson, failed to score in his 21 minutes.
Point guard Jontel Evans, in the second start of his injury-marred senior season, turned the ball over four times. So did junior swingman Joe Harris, who scored 13 points but missed 9 of 14 shots from the floor. Freshman forward Evan Nolte, one of the stars of Virginia’s win over UNC, was 1 for 7 from the floor against Wake.
“I don’t know exactly what we could pin it on,” Harris said of the Cavaliers’ lackluster performance. “We just lacked execution, focus, energy, you name it. We didn’t come ready to play, and we didn’t deserve to win this game.”
And yet the `Hoos still had a chance to force overtime. With 54 seconds left, Nolte’s trey pulled Virginia to 50-46, and the score hadn’t changed when Mitchell went to the line for a one-and-one with 28.9 seconds to play.
What could have become a two- or three-point game instead went the other way. Mitchell missed his first free throw, and Wake rebounded. Senior guard C.J. Harris was fouled, and he hit two free throws with 26 seconds left to make it 52-46.
UVa kept coming. Joe Harris drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 52-49. After Wake’s Tyler Cavanaugh went 1 for 2 from the line, Joe Harris buried another trey, this one from the right wing, to pull UVa to 53-52 with 6.3 seconds remaining.
With his team on the verge of collapse, C.J. Harris stepped to the line and took control. He calmly sank two more free throws, after which Wake called a timeout.
The clock showed 5.3 seconds remaining. When play resumed, Joe Harris inbounded the ball to Evans, who dribbled across midcourt. And then, alas, the Cavaliers’ offense broke down for the final time. The ball was supposed to go to the 6-11 Tobey behind the 3-point arc, but Evans’ pass was knocked away and ended up in the hands of Joe Harris, who launched a desperation 3-pointer an instant after time expired. (His heave missed anyway.)
“It’s definitely tough, especially after the big win we had on Sunday, to come out flat and not play with as much energy,” Tobey said. “It was just a tough loss for us. I thought we prepared well. Mentally, I guess, we just weren’t as engaged as we needed to be.”
Evans said: “Hopefully this is a learning experience for our team.”
Moments after Atkins won the opening tip Wednesday, Evans, who had sparkled against North Carolina in his first appearance in more than a month, turned the ball over. It was a sign of struggles to come for Evans, who had two more turnovers in the game’s first 11 minutes.
“I didn’t expect to play like that,” Evans said. “My play tonight was very unacceptable, and I definitely take that loss upon myself. As a lead guard and being a senior, you don’t get your team started off that way.”
Of UVa’s four losses, three have come away from John Paul Jones Arena. To be successful on the road, Bennett said, “you have to bring an approach where you’re willing to execute, you’re willing to have a level of steadiness and composure on both ends. Again, we got out of sync. Some of it was uncharacteristic.”
Not everything needed fixing Wednesday night. “I thought Mike Tobey did some nice things offensively,” Bennett said. “I thought some guys rebounded. Justin Anderson really got on the offensive glass, as did Akil and, as I mentioned, Mike, so some things were solid there. But you gotta be sounder than that for the majority of the game.”
UP NEXT: After about 36 hours in Charlottesville, UVa will go back on the road. The Cavaliers’ destination this time is Clemson, S.C., where they’ll meet the Tigers (8-6, 0-2) on Saturday. The ACC Network will televise the noon game from Littlejohn Coliseum.
“We have to have two good days of preparation,” Bennett said late Wednesday night. “Clemson’s coming off of a tough loss against Duke on the road, so we’ll go in there and that’ll be a hostile environment. And they’re very physical, and they play real hard. So we’ll have to come in and play better, play sounder, bring the effort. But we have to learn from this. If we don’t learn from this, then we weren’t very smart.”
Virginia has lost three straight to Clemson at Littlejohn since rallying for a dramatic victory there on Jan. 28, 2007.