By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A new season begins Thursday for the second-ranked UVa men’s basketball team, and another one will follow once the ACC tournament ends in Greensboro, N.C.
Had the final seconds unfolded differently Saturday night at the KFC Yum! Center, the Cavaliers would be heading to the Greensboro Coliseum on a 10-game winning streak. But perhaps the most unlikely player on the Louisville roster — 6-10, 220-pound reserve Mangok Mathiang — sent ACC regular-season champion Virginia to an excruciating 59-57 defeat.
Mangok, a sophomore from Australia, entered the regular-season finale shooting 37.9 percent from the floor and averaging 2.6 points. He’d gone scoreless in seven of Louisville’s previous nine games and missed 15 of 16 field-goal attempts during that span.
“He’s not really known for his shooting,” UVa big man Darion Atkins said with considerable understatement.
After trailing for most of the game, the Cavaliers had gone ahead 57-56, forward Evan Nolte passing to guard Malcolm Brogdon for a 3-pointer that dropped through with 13.7 seconds left, momentarily silencing the sellout crowd of 22,788.
With nine seconds remaining, Louisville coach Rick Pitino called a timeout to set up a shot. In the Wahoos’ huddle, their mission was clear.
“Get a stop,” Brogdon said. “This is what we do every day.”
The 16th-ranked Cardinals’ first two options were big man Montrezl Harrell and guard Terry Rozier, with forward Wayne Blackshear No. 3 and guard Quentin Snider No. 4. Mathiang?
“Mangok was the 64th option,” Pitino said.
Brogdon said: “That’s who we wanted to shoot the last shot.”
So good was their defense on Rozier and Harrell that the Cavaliers got their wish. The ball came to Mathiang just outside the foul line, and he didn’t hesitate. With 7-0 junior Mike Tobey challenging the shot, Mathiang dropped in a jumper that made it 58-57 with 2.7 seconds left.
It was Mathiang’s only shot of the game.
“I thought we defended the possession pretty well,” Bennett said. “But good for him. He stepped up and hit a big shot, and I don’t think that’s his forte, and he did it in a big setting. It was obviously the nail in the coffin for us.”
After Mathiang’s basket, Virginia called a timeout, but the play that followed went awry. With 7-footer Anas Mahmoud in his face, Nolte fired a long inbounds pass intended for Atkins, about 75 feet away. The ball missed its target and went out of bounds, and Rozier hit 1 of 2 free throws with seven-tenths of a second left to lock up the ACC tourney’s No. 4 seed for Louisville (24-7, 12-6).
“It would have been nice to at least get a shot up at the end,” Bennett said.
Had All-ACC candidate Justin Anderson been available, he would have thrown the inbounds pass on that last-second play, which Virginia practices regularly. But on the night when Anderson had hoped return to action after missing seven-and-a-half games with a fractured finger, the 6-6 junior was back in Charlottesville, recovering from the appendectomy he had Thursday. (He suffered the injury, coincidentally, against Louisville, at John Paul Jones Arena.)
Whether Anderson, the team’s second-leading scorer (13.4 ppg), will be cleared to play in the ACC tournament is uncertain. Defending champion UVa (28-2, 16-2), the No. 1 seed, opens Thursday against No. 8 seed Clemson (16-14, 8-10) or No. 9 seed Florida State (16-15, 8-10) in the noon quarterfinal.
“I can’t tell you when he’s going to come back. We’ll see how he recovers,” Bennett said.
“He’s been patient, he’s had to endure a bit, and it will certainly be nice to get him back, whenever that time comes, I hope sooner rather than later.”
Like the Cavaliers, the Cardinals are locks to advance to the NCAA tourney, no matter how they fare in Greensboro. Even so, the home finale of their first season in the ACC was special for the Cards.
Blackshear and Harrell were honored before the game in a Senior Day ceremony, during which Pitino called them “two of the better players I’ve coached in my lifetime.”
A 6-5 swingman, Blackshear is the lone senior on the Louisville roster. The 6-8, 240-pound Harrell is a junior, but he’s headed to the NBA after this season, and the Cards wanted to recognize his contributions to the program.
The Cavaliers limited Harrell’s effectiveness in their Feb. 7 win over Louisville at JPJ, but he finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two steals Saturday night.
“He’s a good one, no question,” Bennett said. “He can take over games. I thought we were a little better down the stretch on him, but he’s a lot to handle.”
This was the second straight road game for the `Hoos, and again they started slowly. At Syracuse, Virginia rallied Monday night for a 59-47 victory, but Louisville was a more formidable foe, especially in front of a deafening crowd.
“It was electric in here,” Bennett said.
“This is my first time here. Is the crowd always like this? Because if it is — my goodness, that’s great. And we’ve got a great setting too [at JPJ]. I know Coach Pitino gave praise to our crowd when he came, and I’ll do the same, because it was live. You could feel it.
“I wanted our guys to be in the toughest setting. We were going to have to beat `em at their best, and we had to be at our best, and we weren’t quite there.”
Little more than seven minutes in, Louisville led 19-5. By halftime, the `Hoos had pulled to 30-25, but the Cards went into the break shooting 52 percent from the floor.
“I thought they took it to us,” Bennett said. “When you’re on the road, you have to try to take the game to them. At least defensively you gotta hold them there, and I didn’t think we defensively had our sharpest, readiest approach to start. We did at Syracuse, and it saved us, because we were so poor offensively. This time we weren’t ready, and from here on out it’s one-and-done, and I told our guys that.”
Brogdon said: “We’ve got to be the aggressors. We can’t wait for the game to come to us.”
Anthony Gill, who led Virginia with nine first-half points, was noticeably limping when the team returned from the locker room. A 6-8 redshirt junior, Gill played only seven minutes after intermission.
The injury did not appear serious, but Gill “looked like he was hobbled,” Bennett said, “and I didn’t want to put him in that spot, and I decided to go with Mike and Darion down the stretch.”
Brogdon, a 6-5 redshirt junior, hit four treys in the second half and finished with a team-high 17 points, six rebounds and two steals. Atkins, a 6-8 senior, contributed 10 points, a team-high seven rebounds and two steals.
With 14:40 to play, Brogdon fed Atkins for a dunk that gave the Cavaliers their first lead, at 37-36. It proved fleeting, as Louisville responded with seven points in about a 90-second span.
After Tobey’s stickback with 11:40 left pulled the `Hoos to 43-42, they did not score again until the 6:57 mark, when Perrantes hit a pullup jumper to make it 48-44.
With 5:56 left, Harrell made two free throws to push the Cards’ lead to 52-44, but again UVa rallied. The momentum swings continued. Nolte’s second trey made it 52-52 with 4:05 remaining, and Louisville answered with baskets by Blackshear and Rozier.
Two free throws by Brogdon pulled the Cavaliers to 56-54 with 1:02 left, and then his final 3-pointer left them one defensive stop from a 12-0 record in road games this season.
Alas for the `Hoos, Mathiang’s improbable shot ended that streak. “He made a good shot, and we just gotta learn from it,” Perrantes said. “Nothing’s changing for us in this upcoming week. We just gotta take care of business.”
In 2013-14, after clinching the ACC regular-season title outright, the Cavaliers lost in overtime at Maryland before heading to Greensboro. There, Virginia won three games to capture the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976.
Now, with postseason directly ahead, the `Hoos will look to start fresh again.
“We gotta erase everything,” Brogdon said. “That loss we just suffered. We gotta erase winning the regular season outright. We gotta erase everything, because it’s a new season and new mentality. Everything’s wiped to 0-0.”