By Jeff White (email@example.com)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With six seconds left in the first half, Joe Harris finally got a shot to fall Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, burying a 3-pointer that appeared to give the struggling UVa men’s basketball team a much-needed measure of momentum heading into the break.
With one second on the clock, however, Tennessee guard Antonio Barton launched a shot from just inside midcourt. The Volunteers had already made 7 of 10 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, and this one dropped through, too, sending the Cavaliers to their locker room down 48-26.
“That’s basically the story of the game right there,” Harris said. “It seemed like any time we would come down and anything good would happen, they would respond with something that was even better. I don’t even know how to explain it, really. It’s just one of those nights.”
In the Wahoos’ five seasons under head coach Tony Bennett, their most one-sided defeat has been a 106-63 loss to Washington in the Maui Invitational.
That was on Nov. 22, 2010. Things didn’t go much better Monday night for Virginia in its final non-conference game. Tennessee, which lost 46-38 at John Paul Jones Arena last season, never trailed in the nationally televised rematch and won 87-52 before a delighted crowd of 16,142 at its 21,678-seat arena.
UVa (9-4) came in ranked second nationally in scoring defense, having allowed an average of only 54.2 points per game. Opponents shot 31.1 percent from 3-point range in Virginia’s first 12 games and 37 percent from the floor.
There was little reason to believe the Volunteers would light up the `Hoos. Tennessee (8-4) came in averaging fewer than five made 3-pointers per game and shooting 31.4 percent from beyond the arc. Monday night, however, the Vols were 11 of 18 (61.1 percent) from long range. Tennessee’s starting guards — Josh Richardson (4 for 4), Jordan McRae (3 for 4) and Barton (3 for 4) — torched UVa from beyond the arc.
The Vols “certainly shot it really well, and they hit some fairly tough shots,” Bennett said, “but they got great open looks, and they had so much time and rhythm. We’ve had our struggles offensively, but if we’re going to struggle like that defensively, run into that many screens and be that slow to traps, that poor on ball-screen coverage, then that can happen when [opponents] get hot.
“They separated quick and we couldn’t reel it back in. And at the end we were just trying to play some solid basketball, and that was a struggle for us too. So that’s humbling. It really is. You look at that and say, `OK, here we go, we gotta get back to being as sound and tough as we can heading into ACC play,’ but it certainly leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
“We had three solid days of practice — we really did — and I wasn’t expecting us to come out and perform like this.”
Bennett wasn’t alone. Nobody associated with his program saw this rout coming.
“We just got outtoughed, outplayed, outworked, out-everything,” said Harris, an All-ACC guard who made only 2 of 9 shots from the floor and scored seven points Monday night.
“It was just really embarrassing, and we know we’re a lot better than what we showed. That’s why it stings. It’s very disheartening. Overall it’s just very embarrassing that we came out here and played the way we did, but a lot of credit to Tennessee. They’re a very solid team, and that’s what talented teams do to you when you don’t show up to play.”
The Vols “came out in the first half just absolutely on fire,” said UVa center Mike Tobey, who had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in 29 minutes off the bench. “It’s kind of tough to battle back from that from halftime, but they played a great game.”
For the first time during Bennett’s tenure at UVa, an opponent had three players score at least 20 points each. McRae had a game-high 21, and Richardson and junior Jarnell Stokes added 20 apiece. The Vols cooled down in the second half — they shot 57.7 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes — but still finished 27 of 54. Inside, Tennessee’s bruising big men, Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, both listed at 6-8, 260 pounds, overpowered Virginia.
“We were just disjointed,” Bennett said. “We looked slow, we looked tired, we looked delayed in our reactions, and every mistake we made [the Vols] capitalized on. Yeah, they shot lights out, and it’s hard to beat a team when they’re shooting like that, but [shots] at least gotta be contested. The majority of them weren’t, and that’s discouraging.”
Stokes and Tobey roomed together last summer in the Czech Republic, where they helped the United States win the gold medal at FIBA’s under-19 world championships. (Bennett was one of the U.S. team’s coaches.)
Ineffective offensively last year against Virginia at JPJ, where he scored five points, Stokes had his way inside Monday night. Virginia fouled him repeatedly, and Stokes, who came in shooting 65.6 percent from the line, made 12 of 14 free throws.
“He was ridiculous,” Tobey said, shaking his head. “I think I said something to him like, `Since when did you start shooting free throws like that?’ ”
The Cavaliers’ 22-point halftime deficit was their largest since the Washington game in 2010, when they trailed 55-31.
Virginia scored the first four points of the second half to pull to 48-30, but Tennessee answered with a three-point play by Stokes and a 3-pointer by McRae. The Cavaliers got their deficit back down to 19 with 10:30 to play on a basket by redshirt sophomore big man Anthony Gill (seven points), but Tennessee responded again, this time with a 9-0 run.
Coming out of halftime, Harris said, the Cavaliers “wanted to slowly try and chip away at it, in four-minute stints and try and make it a 15-point deficit at the first media timeout. But it’s tough, especially when they’ve got things rolling and it seems like every shot they put up is going in, and offensively you’re just out of sync and not in rhythm, and too many guys try to make individual plays instead of worrying about what we do best.
“We don’t have enough talent to keep up with all the teams that we play from here on out, and I know we need to realize that the one way that we’re going to win games is playing the way Coach Bennett and the rest of the staff have ingrained in us and ingrained in the program since they’ve been here, and that’s team basketball offensively and defensively. It’s a collective effort on both ends.”
Their offensive numbers haven’t changed dramatically from 2012-13, when the `Hoos won 23 games, but they’ve sputtered frequently at that end of the court this season. Against Tennessee, UVa had more turnovers (12) than assists (eight), and starting point guard Malcolm Brogdon was 0 for 5 from the floor.
Brogdon, a redshirt sophomore, grabbed six rebounds but went scoreless for the first time in his UVa career. Tobey (5 for 10) and Gill (3 for 4) were the only Cavaliers to shoot at least 50 percent from the floor Monday night. Justin Anderson (4 for 11) led Virginia with 11 points.
“Certainly we’re not shooting well,” Bennett said. “Again, sometimes we can play a defensive lineup, and then we labor to score a little bit. And then if we play a little bit more offensive [lineup], defensively we’re not where we need to be. I gotta keep trying to find the answer for that … Our defense has to be better than that, but we still have to keep finding ways to be more efficient offensively.”
More challenges await the Cavaliers, who open conference play Saturday at 5 p.m. against Florida State (9-3) in Tallahassee. Only one of UVa’s first four ACC games is at John Paul Jones Arena — Jan. 8 against Wake Forest.
“It’s tough when you lose by that much,” Tobey said, “but it’s really important for us now to come back together as a team. We’re going into ACC play, so it does not get any easier from here. It actually gets harder. We really need to come back the next three practices before Florida State and come together as a team.
Virginia has lost 10 consecutive games to FSU in Tallahassee since winning there on Feb. 17, 2001.
In its visit to the Donald L. Tucker Center last season, UVa trailed by 11 points with little more than six minutes remaining. The `Hoos rallied to take a 51-50 lead with 1:28 to play, but the Seminoles were able to secure a 53-51 victory.
As much as the loss to Tennessee stings, Anderson said, the Cavaliers “have to remember that there’s a lot of the season left to play, and it’s just one of those games where it happens and you move on. I think real men are made when you respond in these types of moments, and I think that’s where true toughness is tested … We just gotta make sure we learn from it. That’s all we can do.”