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By Jeff White (
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. –– It takes courage to not get discouraged.
He’s shared that phrase with his players several times already this season, and head coach Tony Bennett may well do so again in what’s become a trying year for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team.
It’s one thing to be disappointed, Bennett told his players, “but don’t you dare get discouraged. You gotta be strong and tough mentally.”
For the first time since the 2016-17 season, the Cavaliers have dropped three consecutive games, and in each one they had an opportunity to win late. Virginia lost at Boston College last week, to Syracuse in overtime at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday, and to No. 9 Florida State at the Donald L. Tucker Center on Wednesday night.
“I would say they’re [all] frustrating in different ways,” fifth-year senior Mamadi Diakite said after UVA’s 54-50 loss to FSU. “[Against Syracuse] the effort was there. We just didn’t execute some stuff. The game before that we didn’t have a lot of grit. We didn’t go as hard as we could. This game we gave it all.”
If the Wahoos’ effort was admirable in Tallahassee, their execution was not. Virginia missed 12 of 15 shots from 3-point range and turned the ball over 18 times. Six of those turnovers came on consecutive possessions in a mind-boggling stretch late in the first half. 
The Seminoles (15-2 overall, 5-1 ACC) took full advantage of those mistakes, scoring the final 11 points of the half to take a 31-24 lead. Virginia’s final points of the half came on a left-handed layup by point guard Kihei Clark at the 4:52 mark.
Bennett’s mood at halftime? 
“I was discouraged, so I guess I wasn’t courageous, right?” he said with a smile after the game. “My message was, ‘Look, I want you to be aggressive, but let’s figure this out. You have to slow down a little bit at times, and you have to be sounder defensively without dropping your effort.’ 
“It was a hard challenge to some individuals, and a challenge to [the team], and I thought they responded, because they did come out and got the game back. At times you can crumble under that.”
With the score 35-35, Clark stole the ball and dribbled down the court for a short jumper that gave the Hoos (11-5, 3-3) their first lead of the second half. The Noles battled back and led 44-39 with 7:30 to play, but again UVA responded.
Junior guard Tomas Woldetensae’s 3-pointer started an 8-0 run that ended with a Diakite free throw. That made it 47-44 with 3:11 remaining. After a Florida State miss, Virginia had a chance to extend its lead, but senior forward Braxton Key’s shot was blocked, and the Noles ran off eight straight points, on two treys and two free throws.
As they had late in the first half, the Cavaliers imploded late in the second. A 10-second violation on Woldetensae in the backcourt gave the ball back to FSU with 1:20 to play, and then Clark turned the ball over on Virginia’s next possession on an entry pass to the 6-9 Diakite.
Woldensae’s third trey––the rest of the Hoos were 0 for 11 from beyond the arc––made it 52-50 with 5.9 seconds to play, but sophomore swingman Devin Vassell hit two free throws to seal the victory for Florida State.
Clark, a 5-9 sophomore who played a crucial role on the UVA team that won the NCAA title in 2018-19, finished with nine turnovers, two more than his previous career high. With De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome now in the NBA, Clark is the Cavaliers’ only experienced perimeter player, and the responsibility he’s carrying is taking a toll on him.
Against FSU, Clark had a team-high five assists and two steals but shot 4 for 12 from the floor.
“I told him before, ‘Your plate is full, and it’s overflowing, in terms of what’s required of you for us to probably be successful in a lot of games. You’ve got to guard, you’ve got to handle the ball, make decisions, score,’ ” Bennett said at this postgame press conference. “And I said, ‘It’s tough, and at times you’re going to struggle and it’ll look rough, and times it’s going to look really good. But I promise you, it’s going to be one of the absolute best things for your future as a player, kind of in that crucible of where a lot’s required and where you gotta battle, you gotta keep facing it, and your team needs to play at a very high level. That will produce something good.’
“I’m going to hold him accountable, challenge him, but I’m going to encourage him and say, ‘Keep staying after it.’ He feels it. I know he does. He wants to win, and he’s got to do a whole lot for us to win, and tonight he had some tough moments and he had some good moments.”
On a night when the Noles were 8 for 22 from long range, Virginia missed its first eight 3-point attempts. The Cavaliers finally broke through when Woldetensae banked in a trey at the 13:48 mark of the second half.
Inside the arc, Virginia fared much better, making 18 of 31 shots (58.1 percent). In the end, though, the Hoos squandered too many possessions against a team that, like so many Leonard Hamilton has coached at FSU, is tall, long and athletic.
“Their pace gets you a little frantic, and it takes a strong, composed mind and skill level to not get rattled in it,” Bennett said of the Noles. 
“I’ve brought in some veteran teams with elite guards [to Tallahassee], and we’ve gotten rattled at times, and then maybe had just enough to make some big 3s or plays [and win]. So I understand what their defense does, and I think it’s even more unique this year … At times we got some good looks and got the ball to where we needed, but at times we absolutely did not, and that’s a credit to how hard their kids played.”
As for the Cavaliers’ turnovers, Bennett said, “I really challenged our guys to be attack-oriented and aggressive offensively, because of how good Florida State’s defensive pressure is and their ability to switch. So we tried to open up the court and get to the lane and play. And I thought our guys had, for the most part, definitely the right mentality. Same thing defensively. 
“They didn’t lay down. They fought. And I said, ‘Now, the next step is’––and we keep preaching it––’you gotta season with it with a little more discipline and a little more soundness.’ “
Diakite said: “No one feels good about this. We’re a winning team, and we’ve just had three consecutive losses. But what [Bennett] said is true. It takes courage to not get discouraged. We gotta keep fighting. It’s not a moment to put your head down.”
The Seminoles, who came in averaging 76.4 points per game, scored 12 on their first five possessions Wednesday, but UVA’s Pack Line defense eventually stiffened. FSU shot 37 percent from the floor overall.
“This is one of Coach Hamilton’s very good teams, but we had a chance,” Bennett said. “Those things sting, but you look at it and say, ‘All right, we’ll take some of the positives and move on and keep trying to grow.’
“Sure, our inexperience shows at times, but [UVA players] didn’t back up, in terms of their effort and trying to stay in it, where they could have. So we’ll build on that.”
STEP FORWARD: A junior-college transfer who’s in his first year at UVA, Woldetensae had a season-high three assists and tied his season high with nine points in 31-plus minutes. He was 3 for 4 from beyond the arc.
“I’m learning,” Woldetensae said. “I came here to improve. I think I’m improving. Of course I like to win, and I know this school has history and still has the potential to win every game. We see [the ACC results] and we see other teams with some upsets. We understand how the league is just so unique this year, where everybody can beat everybody.”
SOUND BITES: The victory was the Seminoles’ 58th in their past 61 home games. Among the postgame comments:
• Bennett on his approach with his players: “I don’t know how the mind of an 18-, 22-, 23-year-old, how it all works, but my job is to try to get us ready, encourage ’em, challenge ’em, push ’em, and then repeat, over and over and over.”
• Bennett on the challenge of preparing for Florida State: “You can’t replicate that kind of pressure in practice. We’ve got some of our practice guys and some of our managers [on the scout team], and they’re not quite as quick and as athletic as [the Seminoles], or they wouldn’t be managers at UVA. But you try to just [be creative in practice]. Sometimes you use extra guys, you get on them, you let them foul, just anything to make it frantic and to prepare the best you can.”
• Diakite on the Seminoles’ length: “It was hard for our guards to get [inside]. Kihei had a couple of them that were good, but most of the time it would get blocked or it would be hard for him to reverse the ball, because he would pick up his dribble and jump in the air.”
UP NEXT: Virginia (11-5, 3-3) plays its second straight road game Saturday night against Georgia Tech (8-9, 3-4) in Atlanta. ACC Network will air the 8 o’clock game.
The Cavaliers have won five straight over the Yellow Jackets and lead the series 42-40.
Georgia Tech lost at home to Notre Dame on Wednesday night.
UVA is back home Monday night. At 7 o’clock, Virginia hosts NC State at John Paul Jones Arena, and a limited number of tickets remain for the game.
Florida State visits JPJ on Jan. 28.