By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Outside the visiting team’s locker room at FedExForum, University of Virginia basketball players paused to wish each other well before exiting the arena. Several were flying back to Charlottesville on the team’s charter, but the rest were heading to their respective homes for a pre-Christmas break.
The Cavaliers were not filled with holiday cheer. Not after getting pummeled by the 23rd-ranked Memphis Tigers, who never trailed in their 77-54 victory over No. 22 UVA on Tuesday night.
“This is storybook for me,” Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway said.
For the Wahoos (9-2), it was more like a horror story. “Not a good way to go into break,” head coach Tony Bennett said, “but, again, a valuable learning experience, and we’ll see what we do with it. Who knows how we’ll respond?”
The Hoos played three games at neutral sites last month, but this was their first true road test, and that showed. Memphis (9-2) dominated in every aspect of the game in front of an amped-up crowd of 13,553.
“It got to us,” Bennett said. “We were we were rattled by the crowd to a certain extent. It was a great atmosphere. This place reminds me a little bit of [John Paul Jones Arena] … and it’s great and the crowd got into it. But it was those players and the staff, what they did to us, that pressure they put on us in transition and on the glass and all those areas we just talked about.”
Virginia finished with a season-high 18 turnovers, and Memphis turned those mistakes into 27 points. Moreover, the Tigers had 14 second-chance points, to only four for UVA.
“Every loss hurts, whether it’s close or a blowout,” UVA guard Reece Beekman said before heading home to Milwaukee, Wis., “but this one definitely is going to sting for a while, just knowing how we prepared for this. I feel like we put a lot of time and effort into this game, so for us to come out like that, it’s really disappointing just for everybody.”
The 77 points were the most UVA has given up this season. Through their first 10 games, the Cavaliers allowed only 53.3 points per game, but they offered little resistance Tuesday night. Virginia’s trademark Pack Line defense was so ineffective that Bennett had his team play zone for one of the few times in his illustrious coaching career.
Memphis forward David Jones, who previously played at DePaul and St. John’s, led all scorers with 26 points. Senior point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who previously played at Villanova and Alabama, had a game-high five assists for the Tigers, who shot 39.1 percent from 3-point range.
“The way we got rattled a little bit offensively,” Bennett said, “we were [also] rattled defensively: getting lifted, getting stretched, not staying at home … Again, you’re not going to stay attached if that’s how you’re going to play.”
The Tigers pounced on the Cavaliers immediately. Memphis raced to a 13-1 lead, forcing a UVA timeout at the 16:10 mark. The home fans roared their approval, but the Hoos didn’t wilt. When sophomore guard Isaac McKneely hit two free throws with 3:37 left in the first half, Virginia’s deficit was only a single point.
Still, Bennett said, “every time I thought we’re getting some footing, all of a sudden it was either a careless turnover or they made a play, and we broke down certainly defensively.”
Memphis, which led by six at the break, struggled to pull away early in the second half, but eventually the Cavaliers succumbed to the home team’s swarming pressure defense. After redshirt freshman forward Leon Bond III’s baseline fadeaway cut UVA’s deficit to five with 15:28 to play, the Tigers responded with a 20-6 run that blew the game open.
“They looked battle-tested,” Bennett said. “Obviously, we did not.”
Virginia turned the ball over six times during that eight-minute stretch. The Cavaliers came in averaging eight turnovers per game.
“That was obviously not our best basketball,” said UVA forward Jake Groves, a graduate student who scored 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting. “I think we’re a lot better team than what we showed tonight, obviously, and especially [during] that run. That game never should have got out of hand, because there’s no chance they’re 20-whatever points better than us. But I think it was just an accumulation of turnovers and missed shots on our end. Things weren’t falling, going our way, and when we’re not scoring and they’re scoring, it can get out of hand quick, and I think that’s what happened.”
The Tigers are “legit athletic, and their plan is to make you make plays off the dribble and disrupt,” Bennett said. “Obviously, Reece has the ability to do that, and everyone else for us struggled in that regard. And then they really started trying to take it out of his hands or deny and switch everything and, again, be disruptive. So I think when that happened, when they made some plays with their athleticism and disrupted us, then all of a sudden we made some uncharacteristic [mistakes]. We couldn’t even dribble, pass, make a simple play, and then that just sort of snowballed, and they took advantage.”
Before leaving the court, Bennett congratulated Hardaway, a former NBA All-Star who’s in his sixth season as head coach at his alma mater.
“I said, ‘You’re athletic, you’re tough, you had ‘em well-prepared,’ ” Bennett recalled at his postgame press conference, “and I said, ‘We got work to do.’ ”
Beekman and Groves have extensive college experience, but many of the other Cavaliers who played Tuesday night are underclassmen, including Bond, freshmen Elijah Gertrude and Blake Buchanan, and sophomores Andrew Rohde, Ryan Dunn and McKneely.
“I think that was part of it,” Groves said, “but [a bigger factor was the Tigers’] athleticism, their speed. They were just really good at trapping the ball, and we were struggling against it, and that’s a recipe for disaster right there.”
At times Virginia’s inexperience “showed,” Bennett said, “but that’s not an excuse. We have to be better than that. It’ll be valuable to go through this, as painful as it is. But their pressure really, really got to us, and that’s how they play, and if you don’t have guys that can handle it, then that gets challenging.”
Beekman, whose load is a heavy one this season, contributed 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and one steal, but he also had a team-high five turnovers. Dunn scored 11 points on 5-for-14 shooting, matched his career high with 11 rebounds, and had two steals and two blocked shots.
McKneely, who came in shooting 55.1 percent from 3-point range, had four turnovers and made only 1 of 8 shots from the floor against the Tigers’ array of uber-athletic guards. Rohde had four assists but went scoreless, missing all five of his shots from the floor.
The Cavaliers don’t play again until Dec. 27, when they meet Morgan State (4-9) at John Paul Jones Arena. The 7 p.m. game will air on ACC Network.
Win or lose, Bennett usually starts his postgame press conferences shortly after a brief meeting in the locker room. The wait was longer Tuesday night.
Part of Bennett’s message to the team was that “we’re not very tough and we’re not very sure with the ball, which is what I think was exposed tonight,” Groves said before heading home to Spokane, Wash. “Obviously that game, it’s a tough one. But as always we’re going to remain optimistic. We didn’t play our best basketball, but now we got a couple days to go home and enjoy being with our families. He encouraged that as well. And then when we get back we’re going to kind of break that down and learn from it and get after it.”
Bennett said: “This won’t be a fun film to watch, but there’ll be a lot to certainly teach from, and it’s why you want to come in and play a team in this setting. And I know we’ve got work to do and we’ll use it in the right way.”
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