The Virginia Cavaliers (19-6, 6-5 ACC) lost two games in a row for the first time all season, going on the road and falling to Clemson (13-12, 5-6 ACC) at Littlejohn Colosseum. Though the 22nd-ranked Hoos had won the first matchup between the teams at John Paul Jones Arena just weeks ago, going on the road in the ACC with a severely limited Joe Harris was too much for the team to overcome in the 60-48 defeat.
Losing sucks. Similarly, writing blog posts after losing sucks. Here's a quick recap of the game, followed by a pep-talk, admittedly mostly meant for myself.
Tonight's loss followed an almost identical trajectory as UVA's other 5 this season. Despite playing a tight first half, dismal shooting and turnover woes allowed Clemson to pull away late. Tonight, the halftime score of 24-24 had to feel pretty good for Wahoo fans, as the team committed a litany of errors that figured to correct themselves going into the second half. However, this was not the case. The team, which prides itself on valuing each possession, turned the ball over 18 times, almost one-third of its 59 possessions, and twice as often as Clemson did. While the final shooting percentage showed 50%, 3 of 16 shooting from beyond the arc sunk any chance of overcoming these mistakes on offense.
The Hoos led briefly at 28-27 but wouldn't touch the Tigers again afterwards, as a long second-half run took the team out of the game. Clemson went on a 13-6 run to extend a lead. When a Jontel Evans layup brought UVA back within 3 points with eight minutes to go, Clemson scored the next 8 points and ran out the game unthreatened.
Virginia's offense was hampered by a severely limited Joe Harris. Malcolm Brogdon started the game in Joe's place and played 34 minutes to his 21. Though fans hoped he would be able to play enough to make a positive impact on the game, his injury was a liability and demonstrated how important Harris is to the team on offense. His inability to be a threat driving to the hoop allowed the defense to really key in on Mike Scott. Scott finished the game with just 13 points on 6-11 shooting and 8 rebounds.
Jontel Evans was the clear star of the game for Virginia, as he almost single-handedly kept the team in the game for the second time in a row, finishing with a career-high 17 points on 8-11 shooting. He has arguably shown the most improvement of anyone on the team throughout the year, as his ability to split screens and get to the hoop has made him a legitimate offensive threat.
Joe Harris obviously appeared to be affected by his injury. He finished the game with 2 points, as he missed 4 three-pointers and turned the ball over 3 times. Sammy Zeglinski continued his miserable conference season, jacking 5 threes and hitting just one, his only points of the game. At this point, his strong assist-turnover ratio and value defensively is all that is keeping him on the court.
One final disturbing trend: This team has not been able to get to the free throw line. UVA entered with .25 free throws attempted for each field goal in conference-play, good for 11th in the ACC. Tonight's 1 free throw attempt is not only sure to drop us to last, but it is putting a serious damper on an already stagnant offense's ability to score. The refs certainly had a share of blame in this travesty, as they allowed the defense to body up to Brogdon and Scott and literally grab Harris's arms while he shot, a missed call that made Tony Bennett as mad as you will ever see him.
However, the problem is mainly one of aggressiveness and style, as our interior players have struggled to get the ball inside and go up strong with the ball. Mike Scott has been operating further and further from the basket, Akil Mitchell has been a turnover-machine inside, and even Brogdon and Evans have failed to draw contact. Maryland, who will visit JPJ Saturday, is second in the nation in this stat shooting a free throw for every two field goals attempted. Notably, Mike Scott hasn't even attempted a free throw in his last two games, and has made just one in the last three. Compare that with the NC State and Clemson games just two weeks ago, in which he combined to shoot 19 free throws by himself. This is a recent phenomenon that is getting worse each game and is extremely concerning.
Despite the bad vibes coming out of this loss, there is no need to panic. Tony Bennett preaches to his players not to get too high after wins or too low after losses. Unfortunately, fans don't tend to heed this wisdom. When the team started with a 75-48 win, beat Michigan, ran to 15-2 with a close loss to Duke and rout of Georgia Tech, and pulled off a big win over NC State, fans prepared to hoist an NCAA Championship banner. After a loss to TCU, struggles against Seattle and Towson, laying an egg to VT, and another tough game tonight, mass suicides commenced. Though emotions often run high in sports, it is important to stay rational and accept a tough loss on the road for what it is - a disappointment, but a game that even a very good team will lose sometimes.
As for the team's tournament chances, talk about whether this loss will put UVA "back on the bubble" seems a bit silly. There is a lot of basketball left to be played, and the team is in good shape to return to the tournament. If the Hoos finish 9-7 in the ACC without much work in the conference tournament, or even 8-8 with a win or two, I agree that UVA will be on the bubble. As of now, the Hoos are simply a team in the midst of a fluid basketball season.
The rival Terrapins travel to Charlottesville on Saturday in a game that will probably be fairly characterized as a must-win. The 16-14 Terps are a middle-of-the-pack ACC team heavily dependent on one player, who promises to be a tough task for Jontel Evans. In fact, Terrell Stoglin takes 37.7% of Maryland's shots, the 4th-highest in all of college basketball and by far the highest in the ACC. I suspect that shutting down Stoglin and coasting to a victory at home will have people feeling better in just a few days.