By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — That the University of Virginia men’s basketball team lost at Memphis this month was not shocking, though its sizable margin of defeat was unexpected. The Tigers, after all, are experienced, talented and nationally ranked.
What unfolded Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion was more jarring for a UVA program that perennially ranks among the ACC’s best. Against an unseasoned Notre Dame team that on Dec. 19 lost by 19 points at home to The Citadel, Virginia fell behind 13-0 en route to a 76-54 defeat.
Not since Feb. 18, 2017, when North Carolina defeated them by 24, had the Wahoos suffered such a one-sided loss in ACC play, and that was to an opponent ranked No. 10 nationally. In their first season under head coach Micah Shrewsberry, the Fighting Irish are 6-7 overall and 1-1 in the ACC. The Hoos had won seven of the previous eight games in the series.
“We certainly kind of took a punch early,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said, “and didn’t respond and weren’t sound enough and consistent enough to get back in that game, which was frustrating.”
At FedExForum in Memphis, the Hoos fell behind 13-1 and ended up losing 77-54. At Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame shot 69.6 percent from the floor in the first half and sent Virginia into the break trailing by 17.
“That’s something we’ve been talking about, and today unfortunately it happened again,” senior guard Reece Beekman said of UVA’s slow starts.
Twice in the second half Saturday the Hoos (10-3, 1-1) cut their deficit to 10, but each time the Irish responded with a run. After UVA guard Isaac McKneely missed a pullup jump shot that would have made it an eight-point game with 11:50 remaining, Notre Dame scored 15 of the next 17 points to eliminate any suspense.
“You don’t necessarily win a game in the first four or five minutes and you don’t necessarily lose a game,” Bennett said. “But you make it incredibly difficult when you get down like that … I thought the shots were there early, so we missed some shots. But defensively, we really had a hard time. It just felt like we were behind the play and didn’t have a lot of tenacity and soundness where it was needed, and then whether it’s an offensive rebound or a silly foul that puts them quicker in the penalty, all those things they add up and it just compounded.”
This was the first of seven straight Saturday road games for Virginia. The Cavaliers were coming off a 77-44 win over Morgan State at John Paul Jones Arena, but his team’s defense in that game displeased Bennett, and his concerns proved well-founded.
UVA’s performance at that end of the court Saturday was worse. Notre Dame, which came in shooting 26.7 percent from 3-point range, was 7 for 10 from beyond the arc in the first half. The Irish, whose associate head coach is former UVA assistant Kyle Getter, finished 26 of 51 overall and 11 of 23 from 3-point range.
“Just a lot of breakdowns,” Bennett said. “Notre Dame did a good job obviously, hit some tough shots, shot it well, but they had us in rotations and we just had a hard time [with] ball-screen defense. You can point at everything, but to stay connected to a team that gets hot at home, you have to at least make them earn.”
The Hoos succeeded in doing so on some possessions, but “then all of a sudden when there are those disconnections or the breakdowns that allow them an easy layup, or a forgetful player, a gamble, and the game gets separated,” said Bennett, whose record against Notre Dame is 13-3.
“We don’t have enough offensive firepower to just say, all right, we can kind of exchange possessions and we’ll get it going and score in a flurry … That does put pressure on your defense when you’re missing either some clean looks or bunnies and then you know you gotta get stops [on defense], but that’s just the way it is. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to be harder to score against than we are, or this will continually happen to us.”
Virginia even broke out a zone defense for a stretch in the second half, but that didn’t deter the Irish. Notre Dame found its rhythm offensively early in the game, and the Hoos “didn’t have the wherewithal to stop the bleeding,” Bennett said.
Each of Virginia’s losses—the first was to Wisconsin in last month’s Fort Myers Tip-Off in Florida—has been by at least 22 points this season. The Cavaliers have averaged only 49.7 points in those games.
Against Notre Dame, UVA shot 38.2 percent from the floor overall—18.2 percent from 3-point range—and 55.6 percent from the free-throw line. Beekman (15 points) and sophomore forward Ryan Dunn (13 points) were the only Cavaliers to score in double figures.
Dunn, who grabbed a team-high five rebounds, said Cavaliers need to “take a look in the mirror, individually and collectively, to kind of figure out who we are as a team, because we’re pretty inexperienced, but we can’t have games like this. This is kind of unacceptable to this program. But we have to just keep watching film and just keep sticking together. Although it’s a really tough loss for us, it’s only one loss in the conference.”
Bennett’s message to his players?
“You stay together, don’t hang your head, all the stuff you’d say,” he told reporters at his postgame press conference. “But take a good look, all of us. Look in the mirror and say this has happened now. We’ve gotten beat pretty handily, for sure, three times and haven’t been able to hang in there. And whether it’s a hot team or you’re playing a team that’s mature and good and experienced, you’ve just got to find ways [to overcome adversity]. So we’ve all got to come together and find ways, but it’s going to take a real connected, unified effort: first defensively, because when the defense goes, it’s not good. And today the defense was gone, or they took it from us, and then we weren’t able to even stay in that game.”
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers are back at JPJ where their record this season is 8-0. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, in a game to air on ESPN2, UVA hosts Louisville (5-7, 0-1).
“We’ll get back to work,” Bennett said. “Again, we’re 1-1 in the league and hopefully we can regroup and fight and get back to it.”
For the Cardinals, who are in their second season under Kenny Payne, this will be their first game since Dec. 21, when they 95-76 lost to in-state rival Kentucky.
UVA has won seven straight over Louisville and leads the series 22-5. The teams will meet twice during the regular season. The rematch is set for Jan. 27 in Louisville.
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