By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CLEMSON, S.C. — The UVa men’s basketball team did not, of course, literally limp home Saturday, but it was a bruised and battered group that landed at Charlottesville Albemarle Airport a little after 5 p.m. Each of the Cavaliers’ starting big men — junior Akil Mitchell and sophomore Darion Atkins — wore a protective boot on his right foot, and starting point guard Jontel Evans had ice packs on various parts of his body.
Much has changed for the Cavaliers over the past week. Since beating North Carolina at John Paul Jones Arena last Sunday, UVa has dropped two ACC road games. The first loss came Wednesday night at Wake Forest; the second, Saturday at Clemson.
The best news for the Wahoos (11-5, 1-2) coming out of the weekend is probably this: They don’t play again until next Saturday, when Florida State (10-6, 2-1) visits JPJ for a 4 p.m. game.
“This is going to be the best week off ever,” Mitchell told reporters Saturday afternoon after UVa’s 59-44 loss to Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum. “I just have to get my foot up, get my rest, and I’ll be ready to play next Saturday.”
Mitchell hasn’t missed a game since severely spraining his right ankle in practice Jan. 3. But he reinjured his ankle late in the first half Saturday, and his production dipped after intermission. He finished with seven points and a team-high nine boards in a game which the Tigers outrebounded the `Hoos 29-23.
Senior forwards Milton Jennings and Devin Booker led Clemson (9-6, 1-2) with 11 and nine rebounds, respectively. They also accounted for 61 percent of the Tigers’ scoring.
Among the points that UVa associate head coach Ritchie McKay emphasized in his scouting report on Clemson were these: The 6-9, 225-pound Jennings is much better at home than on the road, and the 6-8, 250-pound Booker is a master at using his size and strength to gain good position in the low post.
Jennings came in averaging 5.7 points in road games and 11.2 at Littlejohn. He hit a career-high five treys Saturday — two of which he unintentionally banked in — and scored 21 points.
Booker, whose brother, former Clemson star Trevor Booker, plays for the Washington Wizards, does his damage closer to the basket. He made only 3 of 10 shots from the floor Saturday but spent much of the game at the foul line, where he made 9 of 12 attempts.
The 6-8 Atkins was limited to 15 minutes by the shin injury that has rendered him ineffective for the past three weeks — UVa’s medical staff will examine him again in the next few days — and Booker got stronger as the game wore on.
“He’s a man,” Mitchell said. “He’s strong, he’s a big dude, he’s physical. It seems like every team in the ACC we’re going to see has a guy like that. We just have to be physical and match their intensity and match their physicality.”
For about 22 minutes, the `Hoos did so Saturday in an arena where they’ve now lost four straight. Virginia trailed 24-20 at the break, but after Mitchell sank 1 of 2 free throws, sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson’s 3-pointer — his only field goal in six attempts — made it 24-24 with 18:29 left.
From there, little went right for UVa. Clemson shot 76.9 percent (10 for 13) from the floor in the second half, including an astounding 83.3 percent (5 for 6) from beyond the arc. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, could get almost nothing to fall. They made only 8 of 26 shots (30.8 percent) from the floor in the final 20 minutes.
Overall, the `Hoos missed 31 of the 48 shots they attempted, and their 44 points are a season low. They attempted only eight free throws, to 27 for Clemson.
Asked about the 3-pointers Jennings banked in, Virginia’s Joe Harris shook his head. “And then you come down to our end,” he said, “and it almost seemed like there was a lid on the basket.”
But “Clemson’s just a tough defensive team, too,” Harris said, “and I think that’s part of where the misses came from.”
A junior swingman, Harris scored 14 points. He was the only Cavalier in double figures.
“We’re getting great shots,” Evans said. “We’re just not finishing them. Wide-open 3s, wide-open layups at the rim. We just have to finish, and once we start doing that, we can get it rolling.”
Jennings called Virginia “a very good 3-point shooting team,” but that wasn’t an accurate description Saturday. The Cavaliers made only 5 of 17 attempts from beyond the arc.
“When we shoot it a little better, it makes a difference,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “I think we hit — what was it? — eight or nine 3s [against UNC]. When we’re not making shots, it puts a little pressure on us, and I don’t know if we’re quite as healthy as we were even on that Sunday.”
The game got away from Virginia quickly Saturday. With Clemson up 25-24, Mitchell blocked a shot by Booker, then raced down the court and caught a pass in the lane with a clear path to the basket. Mitchell rushed his layup, however, and his shot missed. The Tigers came up with the rebound, and at the other end Jennings bombed in a 3-pointer to make it 28-24.
Moments later, virtually the same thing happened again. Atkins missed a half-hook from about five feet, and at the other end Clemson worked the ball around to Jennings, who hit another trey. Suddenly it was a seven-point game, and the Tigers’ fans roared. Bennett called a timeout.
“You feel like, hey, we’re going to close the gap, tie it or get it a one-possession game or wherever it was at, and then they turn it around and come back,” Bennett said.
“It’s momentum. You feel the crowd getting into it, and I just kept trying to charge our guys to stay in there, keep battling, keep fighting, but [the Tigers] were too effective late in the game.”
Clemson led 38-31 when Evans drove for a layup that would have made it a five-point game. Alas, teammate Justin Anderson touched the rim as the ball was dropping through down the basket, and the field goal was waved off.
So it went Saturday for UVa at the offensive end. Freshmen Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte scored six points apiece off the bench, but three of Bennett’s starters — Atkins, Evans and Jesperson — combined for only nine points.
Evans, who missed most of the season’s first two months with a foot injury, had an uneven performance in his second consecutive start. He appeared more in sync than against Wake Forest, but he still had more turnovers (five) than assists (three), and Evans rarely flashed the form that earned him a spot on the ACC’s all-defensive team last season.
He said he felt more comfortable Saturday than he had at Wake, “but I’m still not back to the Jontel Evans that you guys are used to seeing. I definitely have way too many turnovers … I just got to pick my level of play up.”
That’s where the extended break between games should help the `Hoos. Players such as Mitchell and Atkins will get some much-needed rest. Others, such as Evans, will get extra time in the gym to work on their games.
“A lot of guys have bumps and bruises,” Evans said. “We’re starting a new semester. We just need to get back, get fresh, regroup and have a great week of practice and get ready for Florida State.”