By Jeff White (email@example.com)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The UVa men’s basketball team experienced an agonizing defeat Thursday night in a game away from John Paul Jones Arena. The feeling was not new for the Cavaliers.
Virginia, which trailed Florida State by 11 with little more than six minutes to play, stormed back to take a 51-50 lead on two free throws by All-ACC candidate Joe Harris at the 1:28 mark. Once again, though, UVa failed to close out its opponent.
The Seminoles, behind senior guard Michael Snaer, rallied to win 53-51 at the half-empty Donald L. Tucker Center.
Snaer’s late-game heroics for FSU have become the stuff of legend, and his three-point play with 4.4 seconds left Thursday was his sixth game-winning basket in the past two seasons. It staggered a UVa team that four days earlier had lost 53-52 on a late 3-pointer at Boston College.
“We were deflated for most of the game [Thursday], I felt like, and it took a lot of effort to battle back, and to lose on a close shot like that [hurts],” said junior big man Akil Mitchell, who led Virginia with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
“That’s what he does, though. He makes tough shots, but we thought we could get a stop.”
After Snaer completed the three-point play, Virginia senior Jontel Evans inbounded to Mitchell, who passed ahead to Harris, defended by FSU’s Montay Brandon. Harris tried to dribble past Brandon and, when Snaer came over to help, lost the ball and could not recover it before time expired.
“It all happened so quickly, it’s tough to remember exactly what happened,” Harris said. “I should have had my head up and looked to [pass] it ahead if everybody was collapsing on me.”
The Cavaliers (20-10, 10-7) fell to 1-6 in games decided by four points or fewer. Five of those losses were on the road; the sixth was at a neutral site, the Richmond Coliseum.
“We’ve got a young team, and this team’s got a lot of room to grow,” Mitchell said, “but probably the biggest knock on us right now is we need to win these close road games, and it starts with me and Joe and Jontel, with our leadership, and just getting started the right way and closing games when we get up.”
The ACC tournament begins next Thursday in Greensboro, N.C. The top four seeds get first-round byes. The loss to FSU (16-14, 8-9) dropped UVa into fifth place in the league standings, with one regular-season game left.
That, of course, was not the only fallout from the Cavaliers’ second straight loss.
By beating then-No. 3 Duke at JPJ on Feb. 28, Virginia put itself in prime position to earn a second straight invitation to the NCAA tournament. Now, after losing to BC and FSU, the Wahoos probably need to triumph Sunday night and then win a game or two in Greensboro to merit serious consideration from the NCAA selection committee.
“I don’t know where we’re positioned,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said Thursday, “but when you have the last couple games and you’ve had chances to win them and you haven’t been able to get `em, it just stings, because every win you get is gonna help you make your case a little stronger.”
When Florida State and Virginia met Jan. 19 in Charlottesville the result was a blowout. The Cavaliers held the `Noles to 36 points and won by 20. In the rematch, defending ACC champion FSU shot much better — 47.7 percent from the floor — and played the defense for which longtime coach Leonard Hamilton’s teams are known.
“You gotta work to get good looks,” Bennett said. “When we played them [at JPJ], we got some transition buckets, we got it rolling from 3, but when they get you in a halfcourt game and they’re locked in, the way they were tonight, they’re hard to score against when you’re not shooting the ball particularly well.”
UVa made only 22 of 57 shots (38.6 percent) from the floor Thursday night, and much of its offense came on stickbacks by 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey and the 6-8 Mitchell, who between them had 11 offensive rebounds.
Evans was 1 for 8, and another starter, sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson, 2 for 7. FSU’s biggest concern, though, was Harris, a junior swingman who torched Duke for a career-best 36 points last week. Against the `Noles, Harris missed 10 of his 15 field-goal attempts Thursday night and finished with 13 points, four below his average.
“They’re always really long and athletic, and they play very physical,” Harris said.
Florida State led 26-23 after a half in which only three players scored for UVa: Tobey (10 points), Harris (seven) and Mitchell (six). The other Cavaliers were a combined 0 for 10 from the floor before intermission.
With 17:43 remaining, help finally arrived, as Jesperson dropped in a floater that pulled the `Hoos to 30-27. But Virginia floundered for much of the next 12 minutes, a dispiriting stretch from a team with NCAA tournament aspirations.
The Cavaliers’ rally began when freshman forward Justin Anderson stole the ball and dribbled in for a dunk that cut FSU’s lead to 47-38 with 6:01 left. Evans’ layup pulled Virginia to 47-40, and then Jesperson, after an offensive rebound by Mitchell, buried a trey from the left wing to make it a four-point game with 4:29 to play.
FSU stopped the run momentarily with a free throw at the 3:58 mark, but the Cavaliers scored eight of the next 10 points to take their first lead since late in the first half.
“It was a valiant effort to come back,” Bennett said. “We were wobbling a little bit there, and I didn’t know if we were going to be able to come back, the way Florida State was playing, but some guys stepped up and got enough stops and made enough buckets to [give] ourselves a chance to win it.”
Ultimately, though, the `Hoos could not break through, as has been the case in so many close games this season.
“It comes down to those situations, making a play either offensively or defensively,” Bennett said.
After Harris’ free throws made it 51-50, UVa forced FSU into an off-balance shot that missed. Mitchell grabbed the rebound with 54 seconds left, and Bennett, from the bench, called a play designed to get the ball to Harris.
Evans dribbled out front until eight seconds remained on the shot clock, but when he tried to pass to Harris, Brandon flashed into the passing lane. Evans ended up going with his second option, Mitchell.
“He might have been able to get it to [Harris],” Bennett said, “but Jontel probably made a good decision if he couldn’t get it to him cleanly.”
Mitchell got the ball with the shot clock running down and drove down the left side of the lane. Florida State’s Okaro White, an uber-athletic 6-8 forward who already had blocked two shots, leaped to challenge Mitchell, who tried to put the ball up on the right side of the rim. His shot wasn’t close, and the `Noles rebounded.
“I took off too soon, and I wasn’t on balance enough, and when I saw [White] coming over, I tried to reverse it, and I just didn’t have balance enough,” Mitchell said. “I probably should have tried to take the contact or finish with my left.”
The `Noles called a timeout with 12.8 seconds left, and there was no doubt to whom they would turn. Snaer got the ball on the right wing with nine seconds to play and drove past Harris into the lane. Harris challenged Snaer’s runner, but the shot went in and a foul was called.
“He’s known for hitting tough shots at the end of games,” Harris said. “That was on me. I should have kept him in front of me and made it a little bit tougher on him, but credit to him for making a tough play.”
Virginia closes the regular season Sunday against Maryland (20-10, 8-9) in a game ESPNU will carry. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. The Cavaliers, who won 80-69 in College Park, Md., on Feb. 10, are looking to sweep their regular-season series with the Terrapins.
“It’s hard, but we just gotta regroup and get focused for Sunday,” Evans said.
In a Senior Day ceremony before the game, three members of the program will be recognized: Evans, guard Doug Browman and student-manager Johnny Carpenter.