By Jeff White (

BLACKSBURG, Va. — The team that sits atop the standings in ACC men’s basketball visits John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday, and the Virginia Cavaliers will have to contend with such North Carolina standouts as center Armando Bacot, who averages a double-double, and guard RJ Davis, who leads the conference in scoring.

Those two players alone would be enough to cause UVA head coach Tony Bennett sleepless nights this week. But he’s also worried about his own team as the Wahoos (20-7 overall, 11-5 ACC) prepare to host the 10th-ranked Tar Heels (20-6, 12-3).

“Everything’s a concern,” Bennett said Monday night after UVA’s 75-41 loss to Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum. “It really is. Who are we? How are we going to respond to this? Now, we have the right kind of character, the right kind of young men, so that’s good, but you have to be honest to say that got away from us. And at this stage, you hoped it wouldn’t.”

In an arena where they’ve now lost four straight games, the Hoos led for all of 17 seconds, after forward Jake Groves tipped in a miss by guard Dante Harris with 12:41 to play in the first half. The Hokies (15-11, 7-8) quickly regained the lead on a three-point play by center Mylyjael Poteat, but a back-and-forth game seemed to be unfolding.

Instead, it turned into a rout. With 9:43 to play in the first half, center Jordan Minor scored inside to cut the Hokies’ lead to two, “and then they just took off,” Bennett said.

The Hokies ran off 20 straight points, and the volume inside Cassell Coliseum grew with every UVA miss and every Tech make. Finally, with 46 seconds left in the half, reserve forward Leon Bond III dunked to end the Hokies’ run, but the second half went no better for the Cavaliers.

UVA had possession to start the second half and promptly turned the ball over. Tech stretched its lead to 27 before the Hoos scored in the second half.

“I thought we were pretty soft on both ends,” sophomore guard Isaac McKneely said. “We didn’t make them earn on defense, and then offensively we just weren’t screening and we weren’t cutting well. A lot went wrong tonight.”

Harris said: “We didn’t play with a lot of heart. You can’t teach heart, it has to come [from] within you, and I feel like we lacked that tonight and it obviously showed. But I feel like we’re going to definitely bounce back. It’s just one game. I definitely wish we could have had this one, but we gotta move forward.”

The Hokies, who were coming off a loss to UNC in which they allowed 96 points at the Dean E. Smith Center, are a different team at Cassell Coliseum.

“They guarded us very well,” Bennett said. “They were very physical. We didn’t handle that physicality well, and then we were behind in every way, shape and form on the defensive end.”

Only once in a series that stated in 1915 have the Hokies won by a larger margin: on Feb. 18, 1961, when they thrashed the Cavaliers 105-70 in Blacksburg.

“A rivalry game and you get beat by 30, it’s not easy to put that one behind,” McKneely said, “but we’re gonna have to, because we’ve got a tough Carolina team coming into Charlottesville and we’re still fighting for [an NCAA] tournament spot.”

The Cavaliers came in having won four straight road games, but for most of the night they resembled the team that had struggled away from John Paul Jones Arena early in the season.

Of Virginia’s six losses away from JPJ, each has been by at least 16 points. UVA’s 41 points matched its season low, and its Pack Line defense never fazed the Hokies.

“They thoroughly outplayed us, and that’s a tough way to go down,” Bennett said. “But when you when you look at it …. we’re on a fine line, and if we’re not right, separation can occur. That’s happened to us this year a few times. You’d hope at this stage that it wouldn’t, but it did, and it’s a credit to how well Virginia Tech played, but also that we didn’t have the right mindset, or the ability to withstand their runs to try to climb back in, and that’s where your soundness is really challenged and you gotta compete.”

Isaac McKneely (11)

The Hoos have won five straight over the Hokies at JPJ. When the longtime rivals met there on Jan. 17, Virginia prevailed 65-57. Tech’s starting center, Lynn Kidd, didn’t attempt a shot in the first half of that game and finished with two points (on 1-for-3 shooting).

In the rematch, the Hokies threw the ball inside to the 6-foot-10 Kidd on the game’s first possession, and he scored over the 6-foot-8 Minor. Kidd finished 5 for 5 from the floor (and 4 for 4 from the line), and his backup, Poteat, added 11 points for 5-for-7 shooting.

“I think they really established in the frontcourt with their physicality and their play around the rim and we were behind [from the start],” Bennett said. “Everybody had a good stat line against us, of course, tonight, but that was certainly noticeable, and our lack of experience showed.”

Cassell Coliseum can be an inhospitable place for visiting teams, and most players on the UVA roster had little idea what awaited them in Blacksburg. Only three Cavaliers—McKneely, senior guard Reece Beekman and sophomore forward Ryan Dunn—had ever played in a game at Cassell.

“We knew going in it was gonna be a lively environment,” said McKneely, who led UVA with 11 points. “But in a game like that, you can’t let the crowd get into it too much, and we did exactly the opposite. We let [the Hokies] hit 3s, we let them get dunks, and that’s what gets the crowd into it. And then the next thing you know, they’re up 30. We just can’t do that.”

During his postgame remarks, Bennett, fighting a bad cold, praised Harris’ effort. In 24 minutes off the bench, the 6-foot guard contributed six points, three rebounds, two assists and a game-high two steals.

“He really tried to compete,” Bennett said. “He really tried to get after the ball, irregardless of the score or anything. He just guarded hard and played hard … and  we need to collectively find some of that.”

For the third straight season, each team earned a half-point in the Commonwealth Clash competition, which UVA leads 5.5 to 2.0. As disappointing as the loss was for the Hoos, it’s “one game,” Bennett noted, “but that was a step backwards and that was unfortunate. And now we regroup and get ready to play obviously the team that’s leading our league right now.”

At 4 p.m., in a game to air on ESPN, Virginia hosts UNC, which has lost eight straight games in Charlottesville. Then come trips to Boston College and Duke for the Cavaliers, who close the regular season against Georgia Tech at JPJ on March 9.

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