By Jeff White (email@example.com)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — After the latest in a seemingly endless series of ACC tournament setbacks, the UVa men’s basketball team headed home to Charlottesville on Friday night, certain only that it would be in limbo until Sunday evening.
That, of course, is when the 68-team field for the NCAA tournament will be announced. Had the Cavaliers, seeded No. 4 in the ACC tourney, gotten past fifth-seeded NC State in the second quarterfinal Friday afternoon, their chances of earning a second straight at-large invitation to the NCAAs would have improved dramatically. But the Wahoos barely threatened the Wolfpack, which led for the final 36 minutes and 2 seconds in avenging the loss it suffered Jan. 29 at John Paul Jones Arena.
Senior swingman Scott Wood put on a spectacular shooting exhibition Friday, bombing in a career-best seven 3-pointers in State’s 75-56 romp at the Greensboro Coliseum. The loss was the most one-sided of the season for the `Hoos (21-11), who left town knowing they may be bound for the NIT.
“What will be, will be,” head coach Tony Bennett said. “We have some quality wins, we have some bad losses, and who knows what will happen?”
Senior point guard Jontel Evans said: “We just gotta be patient, and whatever happens, happens.”
Among the teams Virginia defeated during the regular season: Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Maryland (twice), Florida State, Wisconsin and Tennessee. But the Cavaliers went 0-3 against Colonial Athletic Association foes — George Mason, Delaware and ODU — and also lost to three of the ACC’s weakest teams: Wake Forest, Clemson and Georgia Tech.
Bennett joked at his press conference Friday that Virginia was “the Dos Equis bubble team.”
“We’re the most interesting bubble team in the world,” Bennett said.
“We do have some quality wins, absolutely,” Bennett said. But the `Hoos, who lost Evans (foot injury) and big men Mike Tobey (mononucleosis) and Darion Atkins (leg injury) for significant stretches during the regular season, also have “some bad losses,” Bennett acknowledged.
The NCAA selection committee will “have to make those decisions,” he said. “It is a unique situation, and that’s where it’s at.”
UVa, which lost to NC State in last year’s ACC quarterfinals, too, is now 2-14 against the Pack in this tournament. State (24-9) advances to meet No. 1 seed Miami (25-6) in the 1 p.m. semifinal Saturday.
For the Cavaliers, Friday’s loss means their quest to advance to the ACC semifinals for the first time since 1995 will continue for at least another year. It’s the longest such drought in ACC tournament history. Every other team in the conference has reached Saturday’s round since the last time UVa did so, including the three teams that have been ACC members for less than a decade: Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College.
Had the the `Hoos played anything like they did in their Feb. 28 win over then-No. 3 Duke at JPJ, the outcome might have been different Friday. Evans had seven assists, two steals and no turnovers against the Wolfpack, but he also missed two layups. Only 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell (19 points, eight rebounds, three steals, three assists and two blocked shots) distinguished himself as a scoring threat for the Cavaliers.
Junior swingman Joe Harris, who was named to the All-ACC first team Monday, was hounded by State defenders and made only 4 of 13 shots. Harris finished with 13 points.
The Pack “keyed in on Joe,” Bennett said, “and guarded him better than we guarded Scott Wood.”
Harris scored a career-high 36 points against Duke. In the four games since then, however, he’s gone 17 for 57 from the floor. The Cavaliers haven’t been the same since the Duke game, either.
UVa followed that victory with road losses to Boston College and Florida State and then fell behind by 17 points in the first half against Maryland before rallying to win in overtime at JPJ. The Cavaliers stumbled early again Friday and found themselves playing catch-up against a team whose starting five is probably the ACC’s most talented.
“Our effort was good — it was — but effort without execution or soundness doesn’t get you a whole lot,” Bennett said.
State is represented on the All-ACC first team (6-8 senior Richard Howell), second team (6-5 junior Lorenzo Brown) and third team (6-9 junior C.J. Leslie). Moreover, 6-8, 233-pound forward T.J. Warren made the ACC’s all-freshman team. And then there’s the 6-6 Wood, who scored a game-high 23 points Friday.
“They have a lot of threats on offense, and when you’re not on your A-game, they just expose you, like you saw today,” Evans said.
Bennett said: “We were sluggish, missed a few easy ones, [had a] couple of turnovers, and they got good looks, and every time we tried to make a mini-run, if you want to call it that, they would answer with a 3 or we would have a breakdown. That was discouraging. You can’t have breakdowns like that against a team like this.”
Led by Howell and Leslie, who had 23 boards between them, State outrebounded Virginia 39-28. Howell and Leslie each had three offensive rebounds, and each scored on a stickback to help the Pack pull away again after UVa closed to 55-44 with 9:22 left.
“Howell and Leslie are beasts,” said Justin Anderson, a 6-6 freshman who started at small forward for Virginia. “They’re beasts on the glass, and that’s something we gotta adopt to our program, that relentlessness on the glass. They go after every single ball. Those are two dominant bigs, and it was tough for us to contain them, because of their physicality and their athleticism.”
Leslie finished with 17 points. Howell scored only six points but grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. Other standouts for State were Warren (18 points) and Brown, a point guard who totaled nine points, six assists, five rebounds, one steal and only one turnover.
In UVa’s 58-55 win over NC State at JPJ, Warren scored only three points in 34 minutes, and Brown sprained an ankle in the first half and played only 10 minutes.
“They’re a different team with Brown,” Bennett said Friday. “He makes them go.”
State, the preseason pick of ACC coaches to win the conference, can be almost unbeatable when Wood is hot. The school’s all-time leader in 3-pointers, he’s quick to capitalize on the slightest defensive lapse. Also, Bennett noted, “Wood has some nice pieces [around him], and if you just guard him they’re going to hurt you in other ways.”
In its regular-season finale Sunday night against Maryland, Virginia trailed by 13 at halftime. Its deficit at the break Friday was nine, and nobody in the Cavaliers’ locker room was panicking.
“We came into halftime saying that we were just in this position against Maryland,” Tobey said, “but the problem is when we came out, Scott Wood made three 3s in a row. We got down big, and we had to fight our way back the whole time and could never really get momentum.”
Wood, who scored only nine points against UVa in Charlottesville, broke the game open Friday by hitting three treys in an 82-second span early in the second half.
“He hit some tough shots today,” said sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson, among the Cavaliers who tried to guard Wood. “Some very tough shots.”
The Pack also made a number of easy shots on fast breaks, an area in which UVa opponents typically struggle to score points.
“We just weren’t getting back and communicating,” Jesperson said. “I think that was the biggest thing, and that’s why they were able to get layups and open looks with the 3. We did a very poor job today in transition.”
Jesperson came off the bench Friday for the first time since the Nov. 9 opener at George Mason. Bennett, wanting a bigger lineup to battle Leslie and Howell, started the 6-11 Tobey next to Mitchell in the frontcourt. It was the first start since the opener for Tobey, who finished with six points and three rebounds in 19 minutes. (Jesperson, on 1 for 5 shooting, scored three points in 23 minutes.)
On an afternoon when State went 8 for 16 from 3-point range, Virginia was 5 for 20 from beyond the arc, continuing a troubling trend for Bennett’s team.
The Cavaliers finished the regular season ranked third among ACC teams in 3-point percentage (39.0). In their past three games, however, the `Hoos are 11 for 50 on 3-pointers. That’s another reason why their postseason plans are unclear.
“Right now I’m really hoping it’s the NCAA,” Tobey said, “but if it’s the NIT, whatever it is, we just gotta come back together and regroup so we can perform well.”
Anderson said: “We’ll be back. We’ll bounce back from it. We just need to get ready for whatever’s next.”