By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Despite all the turnovers, all the defensive breakdowns, all the mistakes it usually avoids, the ninth-ranked University of Virginia men’s basketball team clawed its way back into contention Sunday afternoon after trailing South Carolina by 13 points early in the second half.
With 11:10 to play, Braxton Key hit 1 of 2 from the line to tie the game at 45-45, and the Cavaliers’ fans roared, confident that order had been restored at John Paul Jones Arena.
Their joy proved fleeting. The Gamecocks immediately reasserted themselves and regained control of this nationally televised game. The final was 70-59, South Carolina, a result that ended UVA’s 22-game home winning streak against non-conference foes.
“We had stretches of solid basketball,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said, “but not enough.”
The final stats told the story. The 70 points are the most allowed this season by UVA (9-2), which came in ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (44.2 ppg). The Wahoos had a season-high 19 turnovers. South Carolina (8-4) shot 55.1 percent from the floor and scored 16 fast-break points, the most Virginia has given up all season.
“You’re not going to win against a quality opponent doing that,” Bennett said.
Fifth-year senior Mamadi Diakite scored a career-high 21 points and added five rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots for Virginia, which trailed for all but about two minutes of this game.
Diakite’s three-point play with 9:03 to play cut UVA’s deficit to two, but the Gamecocks responded with a 13-4 run that effectively settled the outcome.
“They played very hard,” Bennett said. “They forced us into turnovers, and they shot the ball well. I thought early we weren’t contesting their shots at the level that we needed to.
“I can always live with tough shots that are made if you’re bothering the shot, but it was almost like [South Carolina’s shot-making] surprised us, and then I thought there were stretches where we battled and fought and made it more difficult for them to score, but that’s when a careless turnover happened or we gave up a transition bucket, an offensive rebound, and that was just too much. And I think at times we beat ourselves.”
South Carolina guard Jair Bolden hit 8 of 13 shots from the floor, including 4 of 6 from long range, and finished with a game-high 22 points. Bolden is a transfer from George Washington, and his previous high as a Gamecock was 14 points. He had 15 at the half Sunday.
“He played like an upperclassman,” Bennett said. “He gave them a great lift and we couldn’t handle him early. [We were] a little better in second half, but he got them off the right way for sure.”
Key, a 6-8 senior, contributed eight points, five boards, two assists, two blocks and two steals in 28 minutes off the bench, and sophomore point guard Kihei Clark added nine points, five rebounds and a game-high seven assists. But Clark also had a career-high seven turnovers, which offset much of his good work Sunday.
The 5-9 Clark, who played a supporting role on the UVA team that won the NCAA title last season, has totaled 13 turnovers in his past two games.
“Sometimes I forget: He’s in a brand-new role for him, and he still is in his second year,” Bennett said, “but I think he needs to clean those up for us to be as good as we can. And I’m asking an awful lot of him, because he has to do a lot defensively and offensively, but I’m going to hold him in high account. I hold all my point guards to that.”
Clark is “a warrior,” Bennett said. “He’s done so much for us, but I did challenge him in the locker room after [the game]. Certain turnovers happen, especially against that kind of ball pressure and overplay, but some have to be eliminated.”
For the season, the Cavaliers have significantly more turnovers (140) than assists (109). Five players have at least 14 turnovers each for Virginia.
“Turnovers are really costing us,” Bennett said. “In the past, we’ve been so good [in that area], and we know our margin for error this year is smaller than most years, and we know the things that we talk about: Before we can be successful, we gotta be so good in eliminating those errors that are going to get us beat, and that [means] taking care of the ball and [preventing] transition defense and second shots. If you don’t do those at a high level, it’s very difficult to win.”
When these teams met last season in Columbia, S.C., Virginia won 69-52. For South Carolina, the rematch meant an opportunity to play the reigning NCAA champion on national television on a court where the Hoos rarely lose.
“Our guys were kind of jacked up,” head coach Frank Martin said.
POSITIVE SIGNS: Freshman Casey Morsell contributed a three-point play and a trey during the Cavaliers’ second-half comeback. For the season, he’s shooting only 24.4 percent from the floor, and he was 2 for 6 against South Carolina, but Morsell said his approach hasn’t changed.
“Just keep shooting,” he said. “You work on it time and time again. You just stay confident. Don’t get discouraged. My coaches and my teammates keep believing in me, so the opportunity is going to be there. I just gotta keep working and have a positive mindset.”
Key, who struggled Wednesday in his first game back from the broken wrist he suffered Nov. 24 against Arizona State, looked more like himself Sunday.
“Today he was very aggressive,” Diakite said, “and he looked comfortable.”
After having surgery on his wrist, Key missed three games, and he’s playing with a cast on his non-shooting hand.
“I think with that at times you can see he’s still a little unsure,” Bennett said, “but [Key played] much better than last game with his comfort level and playing with it … He gave us, certainly, a lift and we needed all [of it].”
SOUND BITES: Virginia now holds a 26-25 lead in its series with former ACC rival South Carolina. Among the postgame comments Sunday:
• Diakite on UVA’s second-half comeback: “I thought it was very encouraging, knowing that we were down double digits at one point. Knowing that we were able to come back with a young team gave me a lot of hope … We learned from what happened at the beginning of the game, but then we unplugged.”
• Bennett on the Gamecocks’ pressure defense: “I think they sensed our perimeter players weren’t used to, with the exception of Kihei, going against guys [who got] in their shirts, so to speak.”
• Martin: “We take a lot of pride in how we defend, and going into the year I thought this team had the chance to be one of the better defensive teams I have coached.”
• Morsell on UVA’s turnovers: “I just think we are being aggressive, sometimes too aggressive. It can’t be to the point where we hurt ourselves. I think in this game we hurt ourselves.”
• Key: “We made a lot of mistakes today.”
• Key, who spent his first two years at Alabama, on the Gamecocks, whom he knows well from his days in the SEC: “I was telling the guys, no matter what, they’re always going to fight. They could be down 20, they’re still going to be fight. That’s just the way they’re wired, just the way Coach Martin has those guys playing.”
UP NEXT: Virginia closes the non-conference portion of its schedule Sunday against Navy at JPJ. ESPN2 will televise the 4 p.m. game, for which a limited number of tickets remain available.
Navy improved to 6-4 with a win over Mount St. Mary’s on Friday. One of the Midshipmen’s loss was to unbeaten Liberty, whose head coach, former UVA assistant Ritchie McKay, attended Sunday’s game at JPJ with his family.
In a series that dates back to Feb. 5, 1910, the Cavaliers trail 31-14 but have won seven straight over Navy.