By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Had it lasted the customary two hours, give or take a few minutes, the Florida State-Clemson game at the Greensboro Coliseum would have ended well before Virginia, 180 miles away at John Paul Jones Arena, concluded practice Wednesday afternoon.
But the ACC tournament second-round game dragged on and on, allowing the Cavaliers to watch the final seconds. They saw ninth-seeded FSU avoid an epic collapse. The Seminoles, who led by 20 points with nine minutes to play, held on for a 76-73 victory over the eighth-seeded Tigers.
That sets up the second game of the season between Florida State (17-15) and Virginia (28-2), this one in an ACC quarterfinal at noon Thursday in Greensboro.
When they met Feb. 22 at JPJ, the Wahoos overcame the loss of point guard London Perrantes, who suffered a broken nose and concussion in a second-half collision with teammate Malcolm Brogdon, and defeated the `Noles 51-41.
FSU guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, smothered for much of the game by UVa’s Malcolm Brogdon, finished with 13 points in Charlottesville. Three nights later, Rathan-Mayes scored 35 in a loss to Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. — 30 in the final 4:38.
The 6-4, 190-pound freshman from Ontario, Canada, led the `Noles with 30 points Wednesday afternoon.
“He’s scoring like crazy,” UVa assistant coach Jason Williford said before the team boarded its bus for Greensboro.
“He’s just a good offensive player. He’s going to get going. We gotta make it difficult for him. We gave him a couple looks [at JPJ] where we didn’t contest, and he kind of got a free look. We gotta lock in defensively.”
The top-seeded Cavaliers, who won the ACC regular-season title outright, have been locked in defensively for most of the season. Still, they’re coming off a 59-57 loss at Louisville, a game in which they fell behind by 14 points in the first half, in part because of subpar defense.
The Cardinals shot 52 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes.
“Louisville came out and they were really playing for something, and we didn’t treat it like that,” Virginia big man Anthony Gill said Monday. “We were just out there, and we didn’t execute our defense the way we should have. We didn’t execute our offense the way we should have, and I think they just outworked us in a lot of ways … So I think we have to have a better mindset coming into the next game.
“From here on out it’s one and done, so we have to be ready, we have to be prepared, and be focused.”
Virginia dropped its regular-season finale in 2014, too, losing in overtime to then-ACC rival Maryland in College Park. The `Hoos bounced back from that defeat to win the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976, so nobody is panicking about the loss to Louisville.
“You want your team to have to be in the toughest environments possible to prepare you for postseason play, and I think that was a real tough environment that we were in last year, and this year,” head coach Tony Bennett said.
“And I think [the Louisville] game showed us a few things that we need to tighten up, to be as good as we can, to make a run in this tournament. So from that standpoint I am thankful for what it showed us. We did play well enough to have a chance to win it.”
Bennett said Virginia learned a valuable lesson at Louisville.
“Our guys played hard, and that was a charged environment, but we’ve got to be better than that if we want to advance, and we understand that,” he said. “We’ve got to learn from that and be thankful for what it taught us.”
Five nights before its game at Louisville, Virginia played Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. Thirteen minutes in, the `Hoos trailed 13-2. They rallied to win 59-47, but they know another such start could doom them.
“I think we just have to be more focused,” said Gill, who leads UVa in rebounding. “We can’t ease into these games like we’ve been doing, because from here on out it’s one and done, and maybe we won’t be able to make up for these big gaps that we’ve been putting ourselves in, in these situations. So I think that we have to just come out there and be ready to work and execute our offense from the beginning and play great defense from the beginning.”
Another concern for Bennett: his team’s ballhandling. The Cavaliers totaled 20 turnovers at Syracuse and 13 at Louisville.
“So those are things we have to address, and we’ve got to be as ready as we can,” Bennett said. “But I also know our guys understand that, and that Louisville game certainly showed that.
“Who knows, had we won that game, if our guys would not understand it as clearly. I think we understand it clearly now. Now we have to do something about it.”
After capturing the ACC tournament last year, Virginia won two games in the NCAA tourney before losing in the Sweet Sixteen. Most of the key players from that team are back, including Gill, Brogdon, Perrantes, Darion Atkins, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte and Justin Anderson.
“Our experience on this team plays to our advantage,” said Atkins, a 6-8 senior. “It’s really going to help us in the postseason.”
Gill said: “I think the experience that we have has helped us all year. We’ve been in every situation already this year. Nothing’s new to us. Maybe to the freshmen everything’s new, but we’re experienced guys, and we’re leading them the right way and letting them know this is how it’s done and walking them through everything. And that’s what it’s all about. Like I tell everybody, we’re brothers here, and we have each other’s back.”
Anderson, a 6-6 junior who this week was named to the All-ACC second team, hasn’t played since Feb. 7. He fractured the small finger on his shooting hand that night against Louisville at JPJ. Then, on the verge of returning from that injury, Anderson had an appendectomy last Thursday.
The Cavaliers hope to have Anderson back for the NCAA tournament, and he may be available in Greensboro this week.
Whenever Anderson returns, Bennett said, “I know he’ll bring the intensity and passion. I know he’ll be excited to play. I know he’ll bring excitement.”
Anderson is second on the team in scoring (13.4 ppg) and third in assists, but statistics don’t fully reflect his value to the Cavaliers.
“He’s just got that X-factor,” Bennett said. “He gets the crowd going. He makes a big play, whether it’s a huge block or a big 3, or just comes up with that hustle play that seems to ignite the team. He has that ability.
“I think we’ve missed that a little bit. I think the guys that stepped in and filled in have done a great job. I think Evan has not gotten enough credit for how steady he’s been. He really has. But Justin, as you guys have watched over the years, has that ability to move the crowd, move the team, and bring that intensity and that passion he’s hard-wired with.”