It's been 17 long years since UVA advanced to play a Saturday semifinal game in the ACC tournament, a number that truly astounds. This season, however, the Hoos appeared poised to snap that streak, as it grabbed a bye and were favored over a motivated NC State Wolfpack team. However, a 9 point deficit proved just too much to overcome, as a gritty UVA team came up short in the 67-64 defeat.
While all should applaud our players' heart, the Wolfpack played with passion for 40 minutes too, an aspect that Coach Mark Gottfried has struggled with all season. The Pack played tough defense all day, but they won the game on the other side of the ball by breaking down the Packline defense to score from inside. Despite Mike Scott's attempts to put the team on his back, Joe "The One-Handed Wonder" Harris's best all-around game since his injury, and one of Akil Mitchell's best career games, NC State simply scored too much for the Hoos to overcome.
For the third straight time, experts at Streaking The Lawn have deemed this loss "heartbreaking." The Hoos rallied from down nine and trailed by just two points with 25 seconds to play. After an NC State free-throw, UVA regained possession down three; Joe Harris got a good look from well behind the three-point line but missed, ending the chances for a Saturday semifinal game. Fans will debate whether the look was good enough to take, but I give Joe the benefit of the doubt on this one. While playing the "quick two and foul" game could be effective, who could blame our best three-point shooter for launching an open shot to tie?
The Wahoo offense has increasingly gravitated toward Mike Scott, who played a solid game on his way to a double-double, scoring 23 points on 9-23 shooting and grabbing 10 boards. Scott did a good job of getting the ball to the rim and drew contact when he got there, earning 7 free-throw attempts. Opposing teams continue to struggle to figure out how to defend him; for most of the game, Scott had opportunities to take his defender one-on-one and converted with some sweet post moves. Occasionally, the offense seemed to stagnate when the ball found Scott's hands, but the lack of all-around offensive weapons made this the Hoos' best option.
As Joe Harris's cast has dwindled, his game has slowly improved. After being diminished to a spot-up shooter who couldn't dribble, Harris has been displaying shades of his dribble-penetration game that he had earlier in the year. This led to 10 trips to the free-throw line, of which he converted 8, on his way to 18 points. Both his made and attempted free-throws shatter career highs. ESPN's continued updates on UNC's injured John Henson drew a stark contrast with Harris. Henson suffered a similar injury as Harris, limped off the court holding his hand (that's right, he limped), and will likely not play tomorrow. Harris has been playing with a hand injury for weeks, also has a concussion, and hasn't said a word.
Akil Mitchell chose a great time to play one of the best offensive games of his career. He made all 4 shots he took, resulting in two "and-ones," both of which he converted (!!). His 10 points match a career high, and he also notched his first-ever double-double. Akil has shown flashes of offensive brilliance, but has been too mistake-prone and inconsistant to depend on at times. If he continues in the future as he looked today, we'll be in good hands.
The Cavaliers' offensive game was far from perfect - Joe Harris hit a pair of three-pointers, but the rest of the team combined for 0 for 7 shooting from behind the arc, including three misses from Sammy Zeglinski (all three misses were sponsored by Spalding). Six turnovers in the first 8 minutes let an early lead slip away. However, Virginia entered the game averaging .99 points per possession on the season. In the loss, UVA scored 64 points in 62 possessions, slightly above the season average. This game wasn't lost on the offensive end of the floor.
Somewhat surprisingly, the game wasn't lost on the boards either. In the teams' first matchup, NC State clobbered the Hoos there, rebounding exactly half of their missed shots on the offensive end to UVA's 14%. This time, UVA actually handily won the battle of the boards, rebounding 10 of its 38 (31%) misses to NCSU's 6 of 41 (19%). The Wolfpack didn't seem to crash quite as hard as last time, the Hoos did a better job blocking out, and this game simply featured fewer strange bounces.
Virginia didn't play its best defensive game, and that's what made the difference. This was especially true in the first half, when the Wolfpack scored 14 straight points to earn a 17-9 advantage. The Hoos didn't play solid team defense, as players lost their men in the post, allowed easy entry passes, and left their feet too easily. When adjusted for tempo, allowing 67 points in 62 possessions is the team's worst showing since allowing 77 in 69 possessions in that flukey win at Seattle way back in December.
There was certainly a need for better intensity, especially early on. NC State had a strong game plan designed to attack the interior, where Scott and Mitchell couldn't be too assertive, considering the foul trouble they have endured in the past, and used some well-drawn screens and cuts to do so. Strong shooting obviously helped as well, and no shot was more important than Scott Wood's four-point play at the end of the first half, when he sunk an off balance three then sat down on the ground, inexplicably drawing a foul. Sammy Zeglinski defended the dangerous Wood (lol) well all game, but that one shot, besides being worth lots of points, was a momentum shifter.
Down the stretch, UVA had a chance to come back, but a few key possessions kept the game out of reach, even before Joe Harris's shot bounced out. With about eight minutes left in the game and the Hoos trailing 53-47, Mike Scott's shot rolled in and out. The rebound, however, came back to UVA, and the ball bounced to a wide-open Zeglinski, who missed a three. The two teams traded baskets; next, NC State missed a shot - the rebound appeared to be corralled by Akil Mitchell, but C.J. Leslie wrestled it away from him, shoved him to the ground, and found Scott Wood for an open three-pointer, which he hit. Reverse these two possessions, and we are likely looking at a win.
Even after UVA started to climb back behind clutch shooting from Mike Scott and Joe Harris, questionable shot selection kept the team just out of the lead. Down 63-60 with 1:45 to play and over ten seconds on the shot clock, Mike Scott passed out to an open Jontel Evans who badly missed a three-pointer. This isn't Evans's strength, to say the least, and an extra pass or drive to the hoop would have probably been a better decision here.
A win over the Wolfpack would have solidified Virginia's NCAA tournament chances. Does the loss mean that UVA will be left out? I could be almost 100% positive when I answer "No." No expert has predicted a bracket that doesn't have us in it, and one is hard-pressed to pick current bubble teams that have better resumes than the Hoos do. Is the loss cause for UVA fans to worry? Well, "almost 100% positive" is still a little less that 100%, and UVA fans do like to worry. Obviously, we'll have plenty more right here on UVA's tournament hopes as the bubble picture continues to solidify.