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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– With four ACC losses, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team already has more than it had combined in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 regular seasons. In each of the four defeats, the Cavaliers were in position late to pull out a victory.
“We’ve had chances, so you’re close,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said. “Maybe it’s not as close as it feels like, but you’re close.”
That was small consolation Monday night for the Wahoos, who fell 53-51 to ACC rival NC State in a nationally televised game at John Paul Jones Arena. The loss was the fourth in five games for UVA (12-6 overall, 4-4 ACC), which shot 36 percent from the floor. From 3-point range, the Hoos were 3 for 12, continuing a season-long slump from beyond the arc.
At 26.7 percent, the Cavaliers rank last among ACC teams in 3-point accuracy. They’ve generally shot better around the basket, but they missed several layups against the Wolfpack (14-5, 5-3).
“Your margin for error shrinks even more with that,” Bennett said.
For all of its shooting woes, Virginia led by four with four minutes to play, thanks to a 15-0 surge that started with a layup by reserve center Francisco Caffaro, a 7-0, 244-pound redshirt freshman from Argentina. The run ended with another Caffaro layup. That made it 46-42, and the roar from the near-capacity crowd threatened to shake JPJ.
 Francisco CaffaroFrancisco Caffaro
The Wolfpack looked rattled, but head coach Kevin Keatts’ team didn’t unravel.  With 3:37 to play, guard Jericole Hellems’ 3-pointer cut Virginia’s lead to 46-45. After UVA’s Mamadi Diakite went 1 for 2 from the line, another State guard, C.J. Bryce, hit a contested trey. Two more baskets by Hellems and Bryce, each from inside the arc, pushed the Pack’s lead to 52-47 with 27 seconds to play.
“They made a couple plays,” Bennett said. “That’s what you have to do down the stretch to win. When it gets to that time, someone’s got to jump up and make some big plays, and score a bucket or two, and they did that.”
Even so, NC State’s poor free-throw shooting gave UVA an opportunity. In the final 26 seconds, the Wolfpack went 1 for 4 from the line and twice missed the front end of a one-and-one.
Virginia point guard Kihei Clark sank two free throws to make it 52-49, and then he hit two more to slice NC State’s lead to 52-51 with 8.2 seconds left.
A UVA foul put State guard Devon Daniels on the line for two shots with 7.2 seconds remaining. He made the first but missed the second, and Casey Morsell rebounded for the Hoos.
Morsell, a 6-3 freshman, dribbled up the court and, after finding no path to the basket, put up a well-defended 3-point attempt from the left wing. It missed as time expired.
In the timeout that preceded Daniels’ second free throw, Bennett said, he addressed both scenarios. “If he made it, we had an action set up,” Bennett said, “and if he missed it, we said, ‘Get the rebound, push and attack. Know the score. If you can get to the rim if you can get to the rim, if you can’t, get a good shot.’ “
On the final play, Morsell said, “I was trying to get it to Kihei quick. I didn’t see him quick enough. Then I realized that time was running down so I couldn’t look to pass, because there wasn’t that much time to really make a play. I kind of tried to get downhill, but then it seemed like they built a fence, which forced me to go opposite wing, and time was ticking so I had to let it go.”
For the season, Morsell is shooting 15.4 percent from beyond the arc, but his 3-pointer with 6:06 to play put the Hoos up 44-42, their first lead since the game’s first minute.
Morsell finished with nine points––his most in a game since Dec. 29–– and five rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot and one steal in 32 minutes. He also played excellent defense, as did Caffaro.
“I thought those two guys gave us nice lifts today,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers were seeking their ninth straight win over the Wolfpack, and neither team gained a significant advantage on the other for the first 20 minutes. Early in the second half, however, the Wolfpack built a 42-31 lead.
“Good offense by them––they made some tough shots––but our defense was not where it needed to be,” Bennett said.
Caffaro, whose nickname is Papi, helped change that after entering the game with 11:27 to play. He scored six points and excelled defensively in 10-plus minutes.
“I thought Papi brought a physicality,” Bennett said. “He did a really good job hedging, impacting that high ball screen, and then we reset and everybody buckled down defensively and got enough stops and got the lead.”
Clark, one of the few veterans left from the UVA team that won the NCAA title last season, contributed 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists Monday night. The 6-9 Diakite, 7-1 Jay Huff and 6-8 Braxton Key had eight points apiece.
Key pulled down a game-high eight rebounds. Diakite had seven boards, three blocks and one steal and in the second half took two charges.
Diakite was 1 for 2 from 3-point range. Morsell and Huff had the other treys for the Cavaliers, whose inability to connect consistently from the perimeter has become a major storyline in Bennett’s 11th season in Charlottesville.
“That’s where your margin of error shrinks, when you look at our shooting percentages,” Bennett said. “You’ve got be so right in all those other areas. But it’s not for a lack of working at the shots and trying to get good shots. It makes it hard, but you look at it and keep trying to find ways [to win]. I’m trying to be hopeful that we’re going to stick a few of those.”
As he mentioned Saturday night after his team’s win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Bennett said, UVA’s inexperienced players are “getting thrown into the fire, and it’s challenging, but it’s the best thing for their games and their future, if they can withstand it. And that’s why the message to them is, you just keep locking in. We’re trying to get it done and win games, but I know this will produce some fruit later on. It’s a little bit of a painful process, but I liked how we responded, and there’s a lot of games left.”
SOUND BITES: Before Monday night, NC State’s record at JPJ, which opened in 2006, was 0-8. Among the postgame comments:
• Bennett on his message to Morsell, who’s shooting 25.8 percent from the floor: ” ‘Keep playing. Show heart. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t get down on yourself. Play as hard as you can, with some smarts,’ and I thought he did that [against NC State]. He guarded hard. He made a couple tough shots.”
• Bennett: “I think we’re improving in little ways, but it’s not showing in the win-loss column, [though it] did against Georgia Tech. You highlight the things that Papi and Casey did [against NC State]. Those are two first-years stepping up there and doing some good things.”
• Keatts, who grew up in Lynchburg: “I have tremendous respect for what Tony’s done. Because I am from Virginia, I do respect what he’s done and what he’s built here. He’s taken this to a national championship program.”
• Keatts on Caffaro: “I want him to take this as a compliment, in the scout we called him [former UVA center] Jack Salt. We thought he brought some of the same stuff to the table that Jack Salt did. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical, he blitzes out on ball screens.”
• Caffaro: “I try to play with energy and just play hard. I’ve been waiting for a few games. I’m always going to be ready to just bring what I can, which is physicality and being ready, and bring energy.”
• Morsell on his first college season: “There’s definitely frustrating moments, especially when your shot’s not falling, especially after you work on it time and time again and you get to the game and it just doesn’t go your way. But today was a step in the right direction and it’s feeling really good, the shot, and I’m starting to become more of an offensive threat, which I feel like will make our team better. Me not being a scoring threat, it kind of puts our offense in a hole.”
• Morsell: “We’re learning from our losses. There’s a lot of new guys in the locker room, and I feel like everybody’s still trying to figure it out.”
UP NEXT: The loss to the Wolfpack ended a stretch of three games in six days for the Hoos, who don’t play again until Sunday. At noon, in a contest to air on ACC Network, UVA (12-6, 4-4) meets Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Wake (9-8, 2-5) visits Clemson (9-8, 3-4) on Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers have won seven straight over the Demon Deacons.