When the Seattle Redhawks visited John Paul Jones Arena last year, Virginia laid an egg. Then, the 4-10 SU team traveled cross-country and dominated the paint, while holding UVA to 2-20 from behind the arc in a 59-53 shocker. With an unmistakably better squad traveling to KeyArena this year and the Redhawks losing 7 of their first 9, vengeance seemed likely in the form of yet another defensive stranglehold. Funny things happen in college basketball; the 24th-ranked Hoos trailed most of the way and almost blew a 14-point lead late before holding on in a 83-77 nailbiter.
Before discussing what went wrong, let's talk briefly about what went right. First of all, the result of the game was a W. At the end of the season, poll voters, selection committee members, and fans won't care in the slightest about a close-looking game on the road. So, if anyone else hasn't been breathing since tip-off, now is a good time to start.
Mike Scott had one of the best games of his career. Despite the team's overall struggles, the fifth-year senior scored at will, putting up 33 points on 12 of 14 shooting and pulling down 14 rebounds. His shots weren't all easy ones either, as he sank contested jumpers from all spots on the floor. If anyone says anything negative about him ever, we know the comments must have been hacked. Looking back, another key player down the stretch was Malcolm Brogdon. With under 5 minutes to go, Brogdon had 8 free throw attempts, all taken with a UVA lead of under 5 points, and he made them all. If those bounce out, I'm not sure how we fend off the late Seattle rally.
Despite these bright spots, there was plenty to make UVA fans fret. Right from the start the defense wasn't there, allowing Seattle to shoot a blistering 58% in the first half. Even more concerning than Seattle scoring 77 points, the first Virginia opponent to break 60, was the way that these points were scored. Sure, the Redhawks shot very well from the floor and made their share of contested 3s. But they also converted the easy types of shots that the Pack-Line is designed to prevent, transition chances and layups. Though Tony Bennett appeared to get his team to buckle down on defense as the game progressed, Seattle never seemed as bothered as some of our earlier opponents.
After climbing back from these early defensive struggles, UVA built a 14 point lead with 8:45 to play...but then trailed 5 minutes later. This collapse was the result of extremely poor execution breaking a hard full-court press and routine double teams away from the basket. Of the team's 14 turnovers, 5 occurred in the next 6 possessions after Scott drained a free throw to go up by 14. The Redhawks are surprisingly athletic and showed one of the tougher looks we have seen this year, but carelessness with the ball and a propensity to get caught in corners ultimately was what led to a near-collapse. Finally, second choice points were an issue. Coming into the game, UVA was ranked first in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom; tonight, they allowed Seattle to grab 42% of their missed shots.
Despite losing the lead, Virginia had the ability to remain composed down the stretch. By converting free throws, valuing the ball, and denying the inside on defense when it counted most, the team went home winners despite a few Jimmer-like 3s from Seattle. Once again, rather than counting on regaining focus late, maintaining composure for all 40 minutes will be important in the future.
Lack of effort and intensity was the clear downside of the night. Defensive execution was a problem too, as the RedHawks set up easy layup attempts by driving baseline, a fundamental mistake in the Pack-Line, which is designed to force toward help in the middle. Additionally, Seattle deserves credit for their performance. Something that coach Cam Dollar is working against us, and last year's win at JPJ doesn't appear like a fluke. One has to wonder: How is this team 2-8?
Before flying home, Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski both tweeted about the game - Zeglinski said, "Tough road win..we'll learn alot from it," and Scott wrote, "Man, wasn't pretty ... but I'll take it.. we'll learn from this.." Let's hope these words translate into action for the team going forward. Regardless of the results in Seattle, the only thing we have to worry about in Virginia's two games next week are the giant RPI hit that will occur just from stepping on the court -- Maryland Eastern Shore and Towson are two of the worst teams in college basketball. After improving to 10-1 for the first time since the 2000-01 season, a trip to Baton Rouge after New Years is the last barrier to completing a 13-1 out-of-conference slate.