Successful Season Ends on Excruciating Note
March 19, 2017
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ORLANDO, Fla. — In a locker room at the Amway Center, Xavier’s players were in full voice Saturday night after their resounding win over Florida State in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, in the next locker room, couldn’t help overhearing the Musketeers’ celebration.
“The thrill of victory,” Bennett said late that night, “and then you get the agony of defeat.”
Sixty-eight teams advance to the NCAA tournament each year. For all except one — the champion — the season ends with a loss. Some defeats, though, are more painful than others, as Virginia can attest.
The Cavaliers’ fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAAs ended with one of their worst performances in eight seasons under Bennett: a 65-39 second-round loss to Florida.
UVA, the No. 5 seed in the East Region, trailed the fourth-seeded Gators by only two points with 3:20 left in the first half. But then came a 21-0 run for Florida that didn’t end until the 17:15 mark of the second half.
“You saw a really good defensive team play against a team that was really struggling offensively,” Bennett said.
The 39 points were a season low for Virginia, which shot 29.6 percent from the floor. The Wahoos missed 14 of 15 shots from beyond the arc. It seemed almost fitting that, on the game’s final play, freshman guard Ty Jerome missed a wide-open 3-point attempt from the left corner.
“It’s like there was a lid on the rim,” redshirt junior guard Devon Hall said.
Florida (26-8) advances to meet No. 8 seed Wisconsin, which ousted reigning NCAA champion Villanova on Saturday afternoon, in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday night in New York.
“Great win for this team, especially having defeated such a high-level program, a program that we have so much respect for,” said Mike White, the Gators’ head coach. “We have as much respect as a staff for Virginia’s program as any program in the country for what they’ve accomplished since Tony’s been there.”
The Cavaliers (23-11) finished with at least 23 wins for the fifth consecutive season, but that was little consolation for Bennett or his players as midnight approached Saturday.
“The thing that was frustrating is we really accomplished a lot this year,” Bennett said. “To end that way is obviously what really stings.”
So, too, did the knowledge that senior point guard London Perrantes had played his last game for the Cavaliers. A four-year starter, Perrantes leaves with 108 wins, the fifth-most in UVA history. He started a program-record 134 games.
“London’s had such an amazing career,” Bennett said.
That made the loss even more agonizing for Perrantes’ teammates.
“To let him go out like that breaks my heart,” freshman guard Kyle Guy said.
Perrantes, who was 2 for 12 from the floor, had six points, three assists and four turnovers. With 4:15 remaining and the outcome settled, Bennett substituted Jerome for Perrantes, who walked to the UVA bench and then slowly worked his way down a line of teammates and coaches, exchanging words and embraces.
“I don’t even know what was going through my mind,” Perrantes said when asked about the game’s final minutes. “It’s a bunch of emotions, obviously … It was over for me. I couldn’t do anything else to help extend my season, my career.”
The season started on a happier note for Virginia, which routed UNC Greensboro 76-51 at the Greensboro Coliseum on Nov. 11. Three months earlier, the `Hoos had traveled to Spain for a five-game tour, and the chemistry established among the players on that trip carried into the fall and winter.
But the team that took the floor Saturday night against Florida was not the one that toured Spain. The Cavaliers’ most gifted big man heading into the season, 6-9 Austin Nichols, was dismissed from the team Nov. 18 for not meeting the program’s standards.
That left Isaiah Wilkins as the team’s primary post player, and the 6-7 junior put together a strong regular season, leading the Cavaliers in rebounding and blocked shots and earning a spot on the ACC’s all-defensive team. But Wilkins came down with an illness late last month that severely limited his minutes and his effectiveness.
Wilkins played only five minutes Thursday in UVA’s first-round win over UNC Wilmington, and he was held out against Florida. He watched helplessly from the bench.
“It’s always tough,” Wilkins said, “because you want to go out there and fight, especially when it’s a game like this and you know it’s London’s last game.”
Against UNCW, Bennett used a five-guard lineup extensively. That wasn’t a viable option against the taller Gators, and so Bennett went with a traditional lineup that included 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jack Salt at center and 6-9 redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite, in his first start, at power forward.
They combined for 17 points and 16 rebounds. Salt finished with a career-best 10 boards, and Diakite led the Cavaliers with nine points.
“Those guys went out there and they fought as hard as they could,” Wilkins said. “So I’m proud of them, and I’m excited for next year with them.”
Bennett said: “Certainly, Jack and Mamadi did some good things. I thought we kind of had the game going the way we wanted early, and then it separated.”
Had he known before tipoff that Salt and Diakite would be that productive, Bennett told reporters, “I would have said it’s not going to be a 65-39 game.”
But Virginia’s guards — Perrantes, Hall, Guy, Jerome, Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson — struggled mightily. They were a combined 7 for 39 from the floor against the quicker, more athletic Gators, whose starters include 6-8 junior Devin Robinson (14 points, 11 rebounds), who grew up near Richmond, Va., and whose mother is a UVA graduate.
“It’s tough when you don’t make shots, but you can’t take anything away from Florida,” Wilkins said. “They’re a great defensive team, and once we turned it over a couple times, it’s hard to get back in those games.”
And so a second straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen — and third in four seasons — eluded the Cavaliers. The sting of their season-ending loss won’t soon fade, but “that’s life,” Bennett said. “We’ll grow from it. Our returners have got some valuable experiences, and we’ve got work to do, that’s obvious.”
Everyone on the roster has eligibility remaining except Perrantes, who led the Cavaliers in points, assists, 3-pointers made and free throws made. Two promising freshmen redshirted this season — 7-0 Jay Huff and 6-7 De’Andre Hunter — and one recruit (6-5 guard Marco Anthony) signed with UVA in November.
“We’ve just got to come back stronger,” said Shayok, a 6-5 junior who averaged 8.9 points per game this season and will be the Cavaliers’ top returning scorer in 2017-18.
Life without Perrantes at UVA will take some getting used to, “but he’s left us with so much knowledge,” Shayok said. “Obviously we’re going to learn from him and everything he’s done for us.”
From a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight in in 2015-16, Virginia lost mainstays Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte. In November, the `Hoos parted ways with Nichols, and then Wilkins fell ill on the eve of the postseason. Through it all, the Cavaliers persevered.
“I admired that about them, and I’ll always admire that,” said Bennett, who ranks this among the favorite teams he’s coached.
“But then to end it this way, to just get overwhelmed like that … was frustrating. But like I said, I challenged the guys that are returning: `You’ve got to grow from this.’ “
He’ll issue himself the same challenge. To coach on such a stage is “a blessing,” Bennett said, and “if you’re going to take the good, you have to take the hard and grow from it, and that’s what I will try to do.
“I probably made some mistakes in this game. I’ve got to go back to the drawing board and figure out where we can tighten things up and be better.”