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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– For the first time since the 2016-17 season, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team has lost back-to-back games. For many of head coach Tony Bennett’s players, this is uncharted territory, and the ACC schedule gets no easier for the Cavaliers.
“That’s where the [program’s] pillar of unity comes in,” redshirt junior Jay Huff said Saturday evening at John Paul Jones Arena. “Coach said it after the game. We can’t get too down on ourselves. Now’s when we’ve got to come together a little bit, rather than pointing fingers.”
Four days after losing at Boston College, the No. 18 Wahoos took the court against Syracuse, which they defeated 48-34 at the Carrier Dome in the Nov. 6 season opener. The Hoos weren’t great offensively in their first encounter with the Orange, shooting 40.8 percent from the floor, but that was a clinic compared to their performance in the rematch.
UVA shot a season-low 31.3 percent from the floor in a 63-55 overtime loss Saturday. The Hoos were 7 for 31 from 3-point range, and two of those treys came after the outcome was settled in the extra period.
For most of the game, the Cavaliers’ defense was solid. Syracuse shot only 32.8 percent from the floor overall. But the Orange (9-7 overall, 2-3 ACC) hit five 3-pointers in overtime, and that was that. 
After Virginia scored on the opening possession of OT to go up 45-43, Syracuse answered with nine straight points, on treys by Elijah Hughes, Joseph Girard III and Buddy Boeheim, son of head coach Jim Boeheim.
“It’s hard to get 3s against [UVA’s Pack Line defense],” the elder Boeheim said. “We were trying the first game, but we just weren’t ready for that type of defense that early in the year … Tonight we were much more aggressive.”
Girard, Hughes and Boeheim accounted for 51 of the Orange’s 63 points and took all 30 of their team’s 3-point attempts.
“They’ve got the green light to attack,” Bennett said. “They’re skilled and tough. Though they missed some, they’re going to make some. They’re tough to guard.”
The Cavaliers (11-4, 3-2) turned the ball over 15 times and gave up 13 fast-break points. For all their flaws, however, the Hoos nearly came away with a victory. They took a five-point lead with a 12-0 run in the second half. Syracuse fought back, but in the final seconds of regulation, UVA had possession with the score 43-43, and Mamadi Diakite passed out to point guard Kihei Clark, who was open on the left wing.
Clark, a 5-9 sophomore, had already made three 3-pointers, but this one didn’t fall, and the teams went to overtime.
After the Orange went up 52-45 on its back-to-back-to-back treys, Virginia steadied itself, and a Diakite jumper made it 54-49 with 2:29 left. A minute passed without either team scoring, and Virginia was seconds away from a critical defensive stop when Buddy Boeheim, a 6-6 sophomore, swung the game in Syracuse’s favor for good.
Well-covered by 6-5 junior Tomas Woldetensae, with the shot clock about to expire, Boeheim launched a desperation shot from about 40 feet away. It banked off the glass and in to make it 57-49 with 1:17 to play.
“He just threw it up,” Jim Boeheim said. “I didn’t think for a second that it was going to go in.”
Bennett, with a rueful smile, brought up the shot in his postgame press conference.
“I shook Coach Boeheim’s hand after [the game] and said, ‘Did you teach your son how to make that fallaway 3-pointer?” ” said Bennett, who played for his father, Dick, at Wisconsin-Green Bay. “And like a typical father he said, ‘Well, he missed a lot of shots, though.’ That’s something my pops would probably say, too, in the same spot.”
The Cavaliers’ perimeter shooters, aside from Clark, struggled mightily against the Orange’s trademark 2-3 zone. Woldetensae was 2 for 9 from long range. Freshman guard Casey Morsell missed badly on his only 3-point attempt, and sophomore Kody Stattmann was 0 for 4 from beyond the arc. Several times Stattmann passed up open shots.
“That zone, when all of a sudden you’re not making shots, it starts tightening up,” Bennett said.
The 7-1 Huff scored a team-high 16 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked two shots, but he turned the ball over four times and missed all five of his free throws in regulation. (He was 2 for 2 from the line in overtime.)
Diakite, a 6-9 fifth-year senior, contributed 13 points and eight rebounds, and 6-8 senior Braxton Key had 11 rebounds and a game-high four steals to go with seven points. Clark finished with 13 points, six rebounds and a game-high nine assists, along with four turnovers.
On the UVA team that won the NCAA title last season, Clark was more of a complementary piece alongside De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, all of whom are now in the NBA. Clark played 40 minutes against Syracuse in the opener and 45 on Saturday.
“This is a whole different role for him,” Bennett said, “and he’s trying desperately, as everyone is, to win, and I don’t ever question his heart. I think he’s got a lot on his plate trying to make plays, take shots, score … He feels it, he knows it, he wants it bad, and I think at times he’s doing some really good things and at times sure he’s making some second-year mistakes, but there’s a lot of attention on him, and we need him on the floor.”
Bennett’s message to his players after the game? “I said, ‘Don’t hang your head, but don’t you dare think this was just a fluke. Look at it for what it is.’ “
It’s easy, Bennett said, for a house to become divided. “You’ve got to be able to win together, you’ve got to be able to lose together and then grow, and that’s what we’ll do.”
SOUND BITES: The Orange ended a four-game losing streak in a series that dates back to the 1983-84 season. Among the postgame comments Saturday:
• Bennett on UVA’s zone offense: “Up at the top, a couple times Kody didn’t even want to look at [the basket], and that’s hard, if you don’t feel like you’re going to make it or your shot’s not there. I think sometimes you have to step in and take ’em. So we put Tomas up there and told Kihei, ‘Don’t think you have to shoot it every time, but you have to be willing to look at the rim.’ Those are all parts of being inexperienced and at times unsure in those spots and not feeling confident. You learn from it.”
• Huff on his missed free throws: “Pretty darn frustrating. That’s one of those things that’s going to keep you up at night, so I’m going to probably come back here later and shoot some more free throws.”
• Huff on the Orange’s barrage of 3-pointers early in overtime: “That’s hard to come back from.”
• Jim Boeheim on playing at JPJ: “This is a tough place to win. I don’t know how many league teams have won in here in the last 10 years, but I’m sure it’s not many.”
• Boeheim on Bennett: “As I’ve said for many years, he’s the best defensive coach I’ve ever seen.”
• Boeheim on his team’s 3-pointers: “For us to win we have to make those shots. We got one lucky one, but that’s OK. Sometimes you need to get a little bit lucky. We’ve had a couple go in against us this year, so we’ll take that.”
• Diakite: “Basically, whatever just happened, we’re going to have to learn and move on and get better. We have another [talented] team coming up [in Florida State]. If we play the same way, it’s not going to be good for us. We as players have to be coaches, basically. We have to be leaders. The coaches can do whatever they can, but if at the end of the day the players are not stepping up and doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s not going to happen. So we have to do it together [with] unity.”
ON THE ROAD: Virginia (11-4, 3-2) plays at No. 10 Florida State (14-2, 4-1) on Wednesday night and at Georgia Tech (8-8, 3-3) next Saturday night. 
ESPN2 is televising the FSU game (7 p.m.). ACC Network will air the Georgia Tech game (8 p.m.).
UVA’s next home game is Jan. 20 (7 p.m.) against NC State, which lost to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Saturday afternoon. A limited number of tickets remain for the Wolfpack’s visit to JPJ.