Virginia's roller coaster ride of a season came to a sudden end in the first round (I refuse to count the "First Four" as a round) of the NCAA Basketball Championship. UVA competed early, but the Gators found their game and pounded the Hoos on their way to a 71-45 victory and likely second round matchup against Missouri. After days of euphoria over hearing the school's name called on Selection Sunday, UVA's season has ended in disappointment.
The lopsided score doesn't reflect a fast start for the Hoos, who scored 10 of the game's first 12 points and led for the first 14 minutes of the game. Coach Tony Bennett seemed to have developed a strong offensive plan of attack, as the team used some sweet cuts to the basket to set up Mike Scott and Akil Mitchell underneath, while freeing up guards to penetrate to the basket too. However, after leading 18-13 with 9 minutes to play, UVA scored just 4 more points in the half, as Florida went on a 17-4 run to close out the period.
UVA's last chance for a comeback came early in the second half. After trailing 34-23, UVA went on a quick 7-2 run, keyed by back-to-back threes from Sammy Zeglinski to cut the lead to just 6 points. However, Florida answered, going on a 10-0 (and 18-2) (and 27-6) run to put the game far out of reach.
What went wrong?
Offensively, we saw the Hoos at their worst. Mike Scott finished with a solid 15 points on 6-10 shooting, including shots that barely cleared the backboard and over his head. However, Florida's consistant double and triple-teaming limited even his ability to make circus shots; no one else succeeded in taking over.
Three-point shooting, a team strength last year, has dragged down the Hoos all season and hurt them again today. The team shot 3 of 18 from three, led by a 2 for 10 effort from Sammy Zeglinski and an 0 of 4 mark by Joe Harris. Last year, the Hoos shot 38.8% from behind the arc on the year, 19th in the nation, and also led the conference at 39.6%. Even before stats from the Florida loss are factored in, UVA shot 33.7% on the year (199th in the nation) and 32.3 in the ACC (9th in the conference). It's tough to explain this decrease, especially considering how Mike Scott's presence should free up outside shooters.
After a focused start, the team also failed to play a clean game. Whether it was nerves, an increasing deficit, or Florida's athleticism, UVA's 13 turnovers were too many for an NCAA game. Some of these were forced by the Gator press, which the Hoos struggled to break and were powerless to exploit for points. Others were mental errors, like Sammy's forgoing an open layup on a fast break to pass to a surprised Mike Scott. The ideal way to beat the press is to not allow made baskets, eliminating the opportunity to set up pressure. UVA failed to do this.
On defense, the Hoos followed up one of their poorest efforts of the year against NC State with an even worse one against Florida. The Gators scored their 71 points in 63 possessions; that 1.13 points/possession is the Hoos' worst of the season, even behind the Seattle fluke back in December. Amazingly, that occurred despite Florida, a team that relies on the three-pointer, shooting 4 of 23 from behind the arc, including a 1 of 15 first half. Virginia didn't do a particularly great job of contesting the Gators' shots, making their poor shooting both a relief and a concern, as it seemed like something had to give at some point. It did.
Florida may have struggled with their bread-and-butter, 3-point shooting, but they did just fine from other places on the court. The Gators made 24 of 30 of their two-point field goals. That is 80%. EIGHTY PERCENT. Why did this happen? First of all, Florida is very good. Having our "worst" defensive game against the best offensive team we have faced isn't exactly unexpected. However, the way we did so was upsetting. By missing open shots, Florida gave us a chance to make this the low-scoring game that we needed. However, missed shots are less harmful when a teammate can grab the rebound and place the ball in the basket. Florida grabbed 9 offensive rebounds in 32 opportunities (28.1%) , compared to UVA's 2 in 41 opportunities (a very low %), including three on consecutive possessions that all were converted into points. These long "off-the-rim passes" were a more effective form of offense than they should have been.
Two other main factors led to Florida's success. First, the threat of the deep jumper stretched out the Packline defense, allowing openings in the lane for penetration opportunities. This is usually a no-no under Tony Bennett's system, but it appears we sacrificed some of our interior defense to contest three-pointers and were burned. Second, the Gators run a litany of effective ball screens. UVA usually excels at hedging these hard and recovering; however, the sheer quantity of screens wore down our defenders. When the Hoos tired, they became increasingly slow to rotate; Florida would eventually find open men and make shots. Late in the game, a demoralized and exhausted Wahoo rotation had no chance at stopping Florida's potent offense.
With that loss...well, the season is over. It's a strange feeling, as the finality of it all seemed to hit players, especially the fourth-years, and fans, especially the fourth-years, hard. Mike Scott tweeted a classy "good-bye" after the game:
Just want to thank the uva fan, holding me down 5 years.
And I love my teammates/coaches.
Sorry things didn't go like expected today.
My teammates will work harder this offseason and will get farther next year.
Sammy Zeglinski seconded him: "Gonna miss UVA..love my teammates, coaching staff, and the fans. Thank you for everything!"
Clearly, this is an emotional time for these players, who have poured so much into their team and their school. All signs point toward these two and the graduating Assane Sene headed off to successful futures. As a fourth-year student making my own sad goodbye, I'd like to speak for UVA fans in thanking the basketball team for a great season (and a great four years). They've truly put together a "turnaround year," as the team has boasted, and have the program headed in the right direction. Following this team hasn't always been easy, but each player works his hardest, plays his hardest, and exudes nothing but class and maturity in doing so. What more can a Wahoo fan ask for?