By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — UVa coach Tony Bennett stopped and congratulated Miami point guard Shane Larkin when they met late Tuesday night in a hallway at the BankUnited Center.
Had the final minute of this fiercely contested ACC men’s basketball game unfolded differently, Bennett might have been the one accepting congratulations on a hard-earned victory. But with the outcome still in doubt, Larkin made two huge plays to help the second-ranked Hurricanes prevail 54-50 before a howling capacity crowd of 7,972.
The first was a driving layup that Larkin laid in after spotting an unimpeded path to the basket. The ball dropped through the net to put Miami up 48-46, 15 seconds after UVa had drawn even on a 3-pointer by junior swingman Joe Harris.
The second was Larkin’s sixth and final assist, a pass to 6-10, 300-pound-plus Reggie Johnson, who was open near the basket and scored easily to break a 50-50 tie with 5.7 seconds left.
Those defensive lapses notwithstanding, UVa still had time to force overtime — or win the game with a 3-pointer. But one final breakdown assured the Wahoos (18-8, 8-5) of a crushing defeat.
Moments after Johnson’s basket, Miami senior Durand Scott stepped in front of Virginia senior Jontel Evans and stole sophomore Paul Jesperson’s sloppy inbounds pass. The `Hoos had no choice but to foul Scott, who hit two free throws with 4.1 seconds left to seal the Hurricanes’ 14th straight victory.
“Heads-up play on Scott’s part,” Bennett said of the steal, “and not a heads-up play on our part. So you look at those last few [possessions], and that’s what stings, because we took ourselves out [of the game].”
Still, as Bennett noted, Virginia had made plenty of plays to get back in the game. With 10:40 left, the Cavaliers trailed 36-29, and they were still down, 46-43, with a minute remaining.
“That’s what I told the guys: It’s gotta sting, but you also gotta learn from it and bounce back,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of basketball left, and we’re looking forward to it.”
A victory over ACC leader Miami (22-3, 13-0) would have significantly boosted Virginia’s chances of earning an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. Five regular-season games remain for the `Hoos: three at John Paul Jones Arena, including a Feb. 28 date with No. 6 Duke, and two on the road.
“It’s frustrating. It hurts,” Evans said. “We wish we could get those possessions back. But we’ll learn from it. We’re a good team, and we learned a lot about ourselves tonight. I feel like we can play with any team in the country. We’re touching on something great, and we just have to finish it down the road … We’re right there.”
In its previous game, a loss at North Carolina, UVa had allowed 93 points, its most in four seasons under Bennett. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the greatest influence on his coaching philosophy, Dick Bennett, showed up for the Miami game.
“We give up 93 points, and my dad has to come see what’s going on,” the younger Bennett joked Tuesday afternoon at the team hotel.
Dick Bennett, who guided Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000, saw the Cavaliers return to form defensively Tuesday night after a rough start in which Miami made 8 of its first 11 shots from the floor.
The `Canes are taller, deeper, more experienced and more athletic than UVa, which played without 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey (mononucleosis) for the fifth straight game. Still, little came easily for Miami over the final 35 minutes.
“We take a ton of pride in our D,” Harris said, “and we didn’t like the performance that we had where we gave up 93 to Carolina. We wanted to show that we could come out and D up a team like Miami that’s just as good offensively as someone like Carolina.”
Tony Bennett said: “We struggled early defensively, and then we tightened the screws and were more sound. Certainly [Miami] missed some shots. But we got back to the only way that would give us a chance in this setting.”
In its previous trips to the BankUnited Center, UVa had played before sparse crowds. Tuesday night, an undercurrent of excitement surged through the arena as tipoff approached, especially in the student section, which filled in early.
The visitors’ cheering section included two of the most accomplished athletes in UVa history, John Crotty and Terry Kirby. They saw UVa take its first lead with 13:06 remaining, when freshman forward Evan Nolte sank 1 of 2 free throws to make it 29-28.
The lead didn’t last long. At the other end, Jesperson fouled Miami guard Rion Brown on a 3-point attempt. Brown hit all three free throws to make it 31-29. Evans missed a floater in the lane, Johnson made a layup, and suddenly it was 33-29.
UVa big man Akil Mitchell, who made only 3 of 10 shots, missed a point-blank follow attempt inside, and Brown connected on a trey to push Miami’s lead to 36-29.
Virginia’s rally featured 3-pointers by Jesperson and freshman swingman Justin Anderson, whose trey made it 40-39 with 6:39 left. Anderson later followed his own miss to cut Miami’s lead to 44-43 with 3:34 left.
In the final minute, a poor decision by Jesperson on defense gave Larkin a clear lane to the basket, and the 5-11 sophomore burned the Cavaliers for that mistake. Ten seconds later, Harris, who led the `Hoos with 16 points, was hammered in the lane while putting up a left-handed shot that nearly went in.
At the line for two shots, Harris made the first to pull UVa to 48-47 with 32 seconds left. He missed the second, though, and Virginia had to foul. Larkin calmly sank both free throws to make it 50-47.
The Cavaliers, not surprisingly, looked to Harris on their next possession, but his 3-point attempt was blocked. The rebound went out of bounds off Miami, however, and Bennett called a timeout to set up a play. Knowing that the `Canes would blanket Harris, UVa assistant coach Ron Sanchez suggested that Evans look instead for Nolte on the inbounds pass.
Sanchez “certainly made a good call,” Bennett said, “and the guys executed, and good for Evan to step in there.”
Bennett laughed. “He used a lot of the rim on that one.”
Indeed, Nolte’s shot from the deep right wing, bounced off the rim and then off the backboard before dropping through the net with 14.3 seconds left.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga, a former UVa assistant, called a timeout and then, as expected, put the ball in Larkin’s hands. Dribbling on the right wing, Larkin saw Mitchell leave Johnson to run at 6-11 Kenny Kadji, a 3-point specialist who was open at the top of the key. Larkin fired the ball inside, and Johnson did the rest.
“Big Reggie rolled, and I saw him behind me the whole way,” Mitchell said. “Kadji separated, and I thought they were going to go back to Kadji for the 3, and they just kind of faked me out on a ball fake. I jumped at it, and Reggie was at the rim.”
After seeing his team play so well defensively for most of the game, Bennett said, it “does sting to give [the `Canes] one at the rim. Because you want them to at least earn it. They made a good play [in finding Johnson], but make them hit a contested shot, and obviously that was an uncontested shot.”
To call the outcome “frustrating would be an understatement,” Harris said. “But it happens. We had a great defensive effort all game, and it was just unfortunate that maybe a mental miscue or two happened there at the end of the game.”
Harris was the only Cavalier to score in double figures Tuesday night. Mitchell and Evans posted game highs in rebounds (eight) and assists (seven), respectively.
For the `Canes, Larkin totaled 11 points, six assists and three rebounds, and like Evans he had only one turnover.
“Love him,” Bennett, a former NBA point guard, said of Larkin, whose father is Baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.
“He’s got the whole package … Our game plan was really like most: You gotta try to not let him get into the lane, and as hard as we tried, he still got in there at times.”
Bennett was asked in his postgame press conference what it would take to beat the `Canes, who haven’t lost since Christmas Day. “I don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get another chance.”
UP NEXT: Virginia hosts ACC rival Georgia Tech (14-11, 4-9) at 2 p.m. Sunday at JPJ. Then comes another home game, Feb. 28 at 9 p.m., against No. 6 Duke (22-3, 9-3).
The Cavaliers are looking to avenge their Feb. 3 loss to the Yellow Jackets, who rallied to win 66-60 in Atlanta. UVa and Duke will meet only once during the regular season.