The Hoos travelled to Tallahassee this weekend with a big opportunity available to them. A win on the road against the red-hot Seminoles would establish the team at the top of the ACC and do wonders for NCAA Tournament chances and seeding. However, in a turnover-plagued defensive struggle, the Hoos fought hard but couldn't convert down the stretch as they fell 58-55. With the loss, #16 Virginia is now 18-4 overall and 5-3 in the ACC. Twenty-first ranked Florida State improves to 16-6 (7-1).
The main stories of the game were turnovers, turnovers, and turnovers. The team, which has a philosophy built around valuing possession of the ball, turned it over a season-high 21 times. The mistakes were infectious, as Mike Scott lost it 7 times, Evans 4, and Harris 3. Florida State runs one of the tougher defenses in the country, and it gave the Hoos fits all night.
The first half was a closely played one, in which Mike Scott carried the Hoos. Despite sitting for the last five minutes after picking up his second foul, he scored 12 of his 16 points, singlehandedly keeping the team in the game. After falling behind 17-10, a Harris 3-pointer and a 4 free-throw possession from Scott (after he was brought down hard on a flagrant foul) tied the game up.
However, the game almost got away from the Hoos after the break. Florida State held a 25-24 lead before going on a 19-7 run to stretch the deficit to 13 points with 7:30 to play. The ten minute period was one of the sloppiest we have played all year, as balls seemed to magically bounce toward the Seminoles, whether off our chests on passes or our hands as teammates fought each other for rebounds.
Somehow, when all hope appeared lost, the team proved to doubters that it doesn't have an ounce of "quit" in it. UVA scored on seven straight possessions, six as part of a 14-0 run that took under three minutes and gave the team a 45-44 lead. Michael Snaer's NBA range three-pointer allowed Florida State a five-point cushion, but a Jontel Evans layup and Akil Mitchell steal returned the ball to the Hoos down 3 with 35 seconds to play.
In the timeout huddle, Tony Bennett drew up a play that would give Joe Harris a chance to tie the game by hitting one from behind the arc. Regardless, the execution on the court was questionable. Sammy Zeglinski received the ball in the corner, faked out his man, and drove to the hoop. Wahoo fans everywhere began to rise to their feet, ready to celebrate a wide-open layup that would cut the lead to one point, with FSU only in the bonus. Inexplicably, he passed up the easy points and sent the ball out to Joe Harris, who just barely missed a good look from the top of the key. The announcers bemoaned a tough break, as Harris missed what they called "essentially a layup" for him. Though the play could have worked, the game could have turned out differently if Sammy had taken what was actually a layup. I'm all for drawing up a play to go for the tie in that situation, but the team also has to have the awareness to take an open shot when its there.
Somehow, the Hoos almost had another shot at the tie. Snaer missed the front end of a one-and-one with two seconds to play, but a Jontel Evans heave at the buzzer hit the backboard, then the front of the rim, before bouncing out. The miss was almost a relief to me; it was pretty clear that Evans got the shot off an instant after the buzzer sounded, and a review ending the game would have been too much to handle.
Mike Scott had another efficient shooting game, picking up a double-double while going 6-8 from the field. FSU locked down on him late in the game, holding Scott to four second-half points, which mostly freed up open looks for other shooters. Mike has to be cautious about forcing anything in these situations, as his 7 turnovers were an unwelcome aberration. Harris also scored 16 points, on 5-12 shooting, and continued to increase his role in the offense. After getting off to shaky starts, Jontel Evans and Malcolm Brogdon really led the team down the stretch, ending up with 8 and 10 points, respectively. Both had a few nice drives to the hoop, and Brogdon went 2-3 from the behind the arc, as they combined to shoot 50%.
Another cold shooting night from Sammy Zeglinski continues a growing concern for Virginia fans. This season the team has tended to go as Sammy goes, as he has both won games with hot shooting and really hurt us when he has been off. Today, his 1-5 three-point shooting included four air balls, much to the delight of the Florida State crowd. Especially considering our short bench, Zeglinski must regain his confidence and continue the prolific shooting he is capable of. Keeping this in mind, I don't think a dramatic move, such as a switch to the starting lineup, would help accomplish this goal. However, if Brogdon continues to play well and demonstrate a complete offensive game, Tony may decide to let Malcolm absorb some of his minutes. Sammy simply cannot play significant time while also shooting 27% in ACC play.
As far as today's turnover problems go, the Noles obviously deserve credit on that side of the basketball, UVA did a poor job of working against their scheme; rather, the team seemed frazzled by their pressure and didn't always have a plan for dealing with it. On one particularly troublesome possession, for example, Akil Mitchell gained possession of the ball and dribbled across half-court, where he stopped, a dangerous mistake. Our guards failed to effectively come out and help him, leading to a turnover and easy points. While mistakes against a great defense are expected, ones that are unforced or the result of mental errors cannot be committed.
Florida State also caught the turnover bug. This is a problem that has plagued them all year, as they entered 322nd in the country with turnovers on 24.1% of possessions (compared with UVA's 18.5%). Their struggles on post entry passes were nothing short of astounding. This is a credit to UVA's defense, which hedges hard on screens but recovers quickly to defend the pick and roll. The Seminoles would see their big man rolling to the hoop, toss the ball in the air, and send it either to a rotating Cavalier or directly out of bounds. FSU finished with 19 turnovers in the game.
Losing on the road to a ranked team that hasn't lost in almost a month shouldn't hurt. What hurts is missing the opportunity to grab a marquee road win that would have staying power in both ACC Tournament seeding and NCAA chances. Last week, Tony Bennett was paraphrased by players explaining, "When you are on the road, you try to steal one." The Hoos were in position to do just that, but a lucky late-game three-pointer, sloppiness with the ball, failed late game execution, and a couple tough calls from the refs were all just enough to outweigh a gritty and intense Cavalier effort.
Virginia returns to action Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena, where the Wake Forest Demon Deacons visit for a 7:30 PM matchup. This is another "should-win" game, as Wake has lost 6 of 7 and sits in the ACC basement this year. However, considering UVA's propensity for torturing home fans with especially exciting matchups, no team can be overlooked. Tony Bennett's squad must take care of business at home before it has another big opportunity next Saturday in Chapel Hill.