By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It rained most of Saturday in this college town, and Sunday brought more gloomy weather, which matched the mood of University of Virginia men’s basketball fans. But the sun will shine again. UVA still leads the ACC by a substantial margin, is still on track to earn a coveted seed in the NCAA tournament, and is still in the midst of one of the finest seasons in program history.
None of that, of course, made what unfolded Saturday night at John Paul Jones Arena any less painful for the second-ranked Cavaliers.
“It stings a little bit, knowing that we didn’t pull through in that atmosphere,” sophomore guard Kyle Guy said after Virginia lost 61-60 in overtime to Virginia Tech before a sellout crowd of 14,623.
With ESPN’s College GameDay at JPJ for the third time, much of Saturday was a celebration of the program Tony Bennett has built in his nine seasons as UVA’s head coach. But when the final horn sounded Saturday night, there was no joy on the Cavaliers’ faces.
Not only did they fall to their biggest ACC rival, they squandered an opportunity to move to No. 1 in the national polls.
“It [stinks],” redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter said, “but we live to play another game. It doesn’t [mean] we still can’t get the No. 1 seed, but we’re not really focused on that. We’re just trying to win every game.”
The ‘Hoos (23-2 overall, 12-1 ACC) had won 15 straight before Saturday, a run that included a 78-52 demolition of the Hokies (18-7, 7-5) last month in Blacksburg. At JPJ, they’d won 16 in a row, dating to last season, and late in overtime the Cavaliers seemed poised to extend both streaks.
With 39.1 seconds left, senior forward Isaiah Wilkins made both ends of a one-and-one to give Virginia a 59-54 lead. From there, though, the Cavaliers unraveled. Fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall, who came into the game shooting 93.4 percent from the line, missed 2 of 3 free throws, including the front end of a one-and-one, and the Hokies scored on their final three possessions to pull off a stunning upset.
After Hall went 1 for 2 from the line to stretch the Cavaliers’ lead to 60-56 — he’d made 28 straight free throws before that miss — Virginia Tech freshman guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker freed himself with a fake and buried a 3-pointer from the top of key with 20.7 seconds to play.
“Pretty good, wasn’t it?” Tech head coach Buzz Williams said of that shot.
Down one, Tech had to foul and sent Hall back to the line, where his shot went in and out. The Hokies’ sensational point guard, junior Justin Robinson, missed a driving layup, but 6-10 Kerry Blackshear Jr. grabbed the offensive rebound and scored while being fouled with 5.8 seconds remaining.
Blackshear’s free throw was off, and UVA guard Ty Jerome dribbled up the court after securing the rebound, but the 6-5 sophomore’s long 3-point attempt wasn’t close.
“We almost stole that game,” Bennett said, “but that’s what it would have been: stealing that game. They outplayed us. I told our guys, ‘I liked some of the shots and the plays you made and stretches of stops to get back in that game, to put it to overtime,’ but even when we had the lead one time we fell down [on defense], we missed some free throws and had a couple miscues. You can’t do that if you’re going to steal one.”
In the Cavaliers’ win at Cassell Coliseum, they never trailed, and the game at JPJ seemed to be following a similar script early in the first half. When a trey by Guy extended Virginia’s lead to 13-5 at the 13:09 mark, the noise threatened to bring down the building.
Williams, who called a timeout to halt UVA’s run, later called it the “loudest place that I’ve coached in.” But the Hokies didn’t fold. Against the nation’s No. 1 defense, they responded with a shocking 17-0 run that included five 3-pointers.
By the time Virginia finally scored again, on two free throws by Jerome at the 5:32 mark, the Hokies were in control. The ‘Hoos later fell behind by 12 — their largest deficit of the season — before rallying to cut Tech’s lead to seven at the half.
After intermission, UVA tied the game with three straight 3-pointers (two by Hall, one by Jerome) but didn’t take its first lead of the second half until Hunter hit a trey with 6:22 left. Again, the Hokies answered, and with a minute to play they led 49-45. But two straight baskets by Jerome, the second a pull-up jumper with 9.5 seconds remaining, forced overtime.
“We had a chance to steal it, that’s the word I’d use, and get one,” Bennett said, “and sometimes that’s good enough. You take it any way you can. But if I look at the quality of the game over the majority of it, I didn’t think we had enough quality to [win].”
Defensive breakdowns hurt the ‘Hoos in the first half, when Virginia Tech made 8 of 14 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc and shot 57.1 percent from the floor. On offense, the Cavaliers struggled throughout the game to establish a rhythm. Tech packed the paint, keeping UVA on the perimeter.
“They really flooded and jammed the lane,” Bennett said.
Hall said: “Every time we tried to drive in the lane they jumped the gap.”
And so the Cavaliers settled for perimeter shots. They put up 38 from beyond the arc — 11 more than their previous season high. Had they been more accurate, the outcome might well have been different, but Guy and Jerome were a combined 4 for 24 from long range. Overall, Virginia shot 28.9 percent on 3-pointers.
“To be honest, we got a lot of open shots we didn’t knock down,” said Hall, who was 5 for 10 on 3-pointers.
Bennett said: “We got some good looks, and then I thought our touches were all right. I don’t mind taking good rhythm shots. We shot a couple — maybe more than a couple — bad ones and [38 attempts is] a very high number. It is what it is.”
Robinson led the Hokies with 20 points and seven rebounds, both game highs. Alexander-Walker, whom UVA held to three points in Blacksburg, scored 12 in the rematch.
For the Cavaliers, Hall (16 points), Hunter (14), Guy (13) and Jerome (11) accounted for 90 percent of their scoring.
With a minute left in OT, Hall pulled up for a cold-blooded 3-pointer from the right wing. It dropped through to give the ‘Hoos a 57-54 lead, and when Wilkins’ two free throws made it a five-point game, Jerome thought that might be enough.
“But we were fortunate to be in that position, up five, anyway,” Jerome said. “We had too many breakdowns the whole game.”
The Cavaliers remain in an enviable position. Only one other team has fewer than four ACC losses, and that’s No. 16 Clemson (20-4, 9-3). The ‘Hoos defeated the Tigers 61-36 at JPJ last month in what will be their only regular-season meeting.
“I don’t get too carried away with where we are. I always say ‘thus far,’ and now we have to prove it again,” Bennett said. “I told our guys they’ve done an unbelievable job to get where they are. We didn’t do the job tonight. Now we’re going to get a chance to do it again, and we’re going to have to fight like crazy every game. Everybody is capable of beating everybody in this league, and that’s reality. If you’re little off it’s not enough.”
The key, Hall said, is for the Cavaliers to learn “learn from our mistakes. I think we played poor defensively. But we fought. We’re a fighting team.”
Hall said he was “super confident” when he went to the line in overtime.
“I shoot thousands of free throws,” he said. “I’ll go right back up to the line like I did last time and shoot them the same way. The second time I went up to the line [at the end] I thought that the free throw was going to go in, and it felt good coming off my hands. I have all the confidence in the world in myself when it comes to that situation.”
THEY SAID IT: After the Cavaliers’ first loss at JPJ since Feb. 15, 2017, there was much to discuss. Among the comments:
* Bennett: “First of all, it was a phenomenal atmosphere. Our crowd, the people who came out, that was special. That was as loud as I’ve heard it. I certainly appreciate that.”
* Bennett on Robinson: “He made some big, big plays.”
* Williams on the Hokies’ defensive improvement: “I would not necessarily say strategically that there has been any change relative to what we have taught from the beginning. It has just been more of an emphasis on holding one another accountable, watching tape of ourselves and literally just practicing that. No drills, no offense, nothing. Just half-court defense.”
* Jerome on Hall: “He’s been great for us all year, and he was good for us tonight, too. He had a big three in overtime. He did not lose that game on the two free throws, and he knows that. He’s going to be hard on himself because he strives for excellence and he demands excellence of himself, but he will be ready to play Tuesday [at Miami].”
* Guy on the atmosphere at JPJ: “Honestly, I thought it was amazing. I thought the GameDay was great for this program and the University. I thought the fans were fantastic, one of the loudest [crowds] I’ve ever heard.”
WHAT’S NEXT? Five regular-season games remain for the ‘Hoos. The first comes Tuesday night, when UVA meets No. 25 Miami (18-6, 7-5) in Coral Gables, Florida. ESPN will televise the 9 o’clock game.
Miami lost 72-70 to Boston College on Saturday afternoon in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
After facing the Hurricanes, the Cavaliers will be off until Feb. 21, when they host Georgia Tech (11-13, 4-7) in their penultimate home game.