By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG — When the final horn sounds next Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena, it will be over: perhaps the toughest four-game stretch Tony Bennett has faced in 11 seasons as a head college basketball coach.
The 12th-ranked Cavaliers had hoped to emerge from the gauntlet unscathed, and they were on the verge of recording an impressive road win Sunday night. But the Wahoos let the opportunity slip away, losing to Virginia Tech in agonizing fashion, and now they must prepare for the ACC’s hottest team, No. 18 Duke
“It’s a great, great league that you better be ready for,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said.
The `Hoos defeated Virginia Tech 71-48 at JPJ on Feb. 1, and they led by 14 points at intermission Sunday night after closing the first half on a 13-0 run. But the Hokies rallied to win 80-78 in double overtime — only their second victory in the teams’ past 10 meetings.
Tech (17-7, 6-6) forced extra time with a putback with one second left in regulation, a sequence reminiscent of the one on which UVA lost to reigning NCAA champion Villanova in Philadelphia last month.
At the end of the first OT, senior guard Seth Allen missed a 3-point attempt that would have won the game for the Hokies. In the second OT, the Cavaliers weren’t so fortunate. With 3.2 seconds left, Allen scored on a short jumper in the lane to break to a 78-78 tie, and his game-winner triggered a frenzied celebration among the maroon-clad fans in Cassell Coliseum.
The `Hoos bused back to Charlottesville late Sunday night knowing they couldn’t afford to dwell on the loss.
It’s important to let “the one that we just played go, because if we sit on it, it affects our next game,” junior forward Isaiah Wilkins aid. “We’ve just got to learn from this March Madness-style game and be ready to play Wednesday.”
At 9 p.m., in a game ESPN2 will televise, the Cavaliers host the rejuvenated Blue Devils, who have won five straight. Then comes a Saturday night date with No. 8 North Carolina (21-5, 9-3), followed by a Monday night game against Miami (16-8, 6-6) at JPJ.
“That’s this league,” Bennett said of the challenge in front of his team. “You embrace it, you try to love the challenge and, as a friend of mine said, be unflappable in it.”
A win over Virginia Tech would have given UVA a share of first place in the ACC. Instead, the Cavaliers find themselves tied for third with Duke and No. 4 Louisville (20-5, 8-4).
“I felt it was there for the taking,” Bennett said.
In the second half, the Hokies shredded Virginia’s defense, shooting 58.3 percent from the floor. As costly as the Cavaliers’ defensive breakdowns were, however, their poor free-throw shooting was a bigger factor Sunday night.
The `Hoos came in shooting 71.7 percent from the line, but they made only 14 of 24 free throws on a night when the Hokies hit 20 of 26. Seven Cavaliers went to the line Sunday night. Each of them missed at least once.
“That really stung,” said Bennett, who’s in his eighth season at UVA.
In the final 10:10 of the game, including the two five-minute overtime periods, Virginia went 5 for 10 from the line. Two of those misses were front ends of one-and-ones.
Even senior point guard London Perrantes, who came in shooting 78.4 percent from the line, had an off night there. Perrantes finished with a game-high 22 points, but he missed two free throws, including the front end of a one-and-one early in the first OT.
“I’m not going to give you an excuse for it,” Perrantes said. “Just gotta make free throws.”
With 26.3 seconds left in regulation, Perrantes scored on a drive that put the Cavaliers ahead 63-61, and they followed that with a defensive stop. The Hokies had no choice but to foul, and they sent freshman guard Ty Jerome to the line for a one-and-one with 9.7 seconds left.
The Cavaliers could have come away from that possession with a four-point lead, but Jerome’s free throw bounced off the back of the rim. That kept the Hokies in position to force OT with a basket, which Ty Outlaw provided when Virginia failed to block him out after Allen’s miss.
“A lot of games end like that,” Bennett said. “There’s a play on the ball, and a guy runs in and tips it in. It certainly happened against Villanova for us.”
The game went to a second overtime in part because of a bizarre sequence in the first. With the score 68-68, Perrantes drove the left side of the lane and put up a shot that appeared destined to give Virginia a two-point lead with 21.2 seconds left. But the ball landed softly on the part of the rim that connects to the backboard, and it refused to move, to the Cavaliers’ disbelief and the Hokies’ delight.
“That was quite a spectacle there,” Bennett said.
Perrantes said: “I couldn’t do that if I tried again. Never done that, never seen it happen, especially on a layup. That was a tough one, for sure.”
It was ruled the equivalent of a jump ball, and the possession arrow pointed in the Hokies’ direction. They didn’t capitalize in the first OT, but in the second the last two of Allen’s 20 points proved decisive.
“It was there for the taking,” Bennett said. “Either [get] a stop or ice it away at the free-throw line, and you’d feel different right now. But it was a hard-fought game. Credit to Virginia Tech. Wild atmosphere, and the games, they always seem to be like this here.”
The `Hoos are 8-4 away from JPJ this season, but they have dropped their past three road games, losing by two points to then-No. 1 Villanova, by four to Syracuse and, now, by two to Virginia Tech. In each of those games UVA squandered a double-digit lead in the second half.
“Good teams … [are] going to make those runs, and you just try to be ready for them,” Bennett said.
In their Feb. 1 win over the Hokies, the Cavaliers never trailed. What, UVA guard Devon Hall was asked, was the difference in the rematch?
“Home floor,” said Hall, a redshirt junior from Virginia Beach. “Home-floor advantage. They had their crowd behind them, and we knew they were going to come out with a lot of energy … We knew they were going to make runs.”
Off a slick pass from freshman guard Kyle Guy, Hall scored inside with 17 seconds left in the second overtime to make it 78-78, but that was it for Virginia. With 10 points, Hall was one of four Cavaliers to score in double figures Sunday, along with Perrantes, Guy (12 points) and junior guard Marial Shayok (11).
Perrantes topped the 20-point mark for the fourth time this season, but this was not one of his most efficient performances. He was 3 for 12 from beyond the arc and 7 for 22 overall.
“He made some tough drives,” Bennett said. “We sort of spread it out, and when we got mismatches, we let him attack and try to draw fouls or get to the rim. He had some nice finishes. We just had some where we were right there and we couldn’t quite finish. But he was aggressive and asserted himself, and he needed to, to keep us where we needed to be in that game, to have a chance.”
On an unseasonably warm winter night, the temperature was much higher than usual inside Cassell Coliseum, too, and the players’ fatigue was palpable late in the game.
For UVA freshmen Guy, Jerome and Mamadi Diakite, who blocked three shots, this was their first game on Virginia Tech’s court, and they figure to learn from the experience.
“I think there’ll be some positives,” Bennett said. “It’s hard to grasp `em right now. But it was a very good college basketball game.”
With a rueful smile, he amended that statement. “Or exciting. I don’t know how great it was, but it was exciting.”