Virginia headed to Miami with a great opportunity in front of it. A loss on the home court of a top-five team can't be looked down upon, while a victory would be a signature win for UVA's NCAA resume. The Hoos kept that opportunity within reach until the final seconds, but failed to capitalize after Miami's Shane Larkin found Reggie Johnson for the game winner with 5 seconds to play. UVA fought hard but came up short in a 54-50 defeat that dropped the team into a three-way tie for third place in the ACC at 8-5.
Joe Harris lifted the Hoos back into the game with a tying three-pointer with just under a minute to play. However, the team lost the ability to possess the ball last when Larkin came around a double screen and quickly slashed for the go-ahead layup. Then, down by three with 14 seconds left, it was Evan Nolte who launched a three-pointer; the ball bounced high off the rim before dropping in to tie the game again.
However, Miami capitalized, running a similar play as their previous one, but getting the ball to a wide-open Johnson after Akil Mitchell inexplicably took a step out toward Kenny Kadji at the top of the key. UVA lost any chance at a desperation shot in the last 5 seconds when Paul Jesperson inbounded the ball into the waiting arms of Durand Scott, who made two free throws to seal a Miami win and gut-wrenching Wahoo loss.
The game got off to an inauspicious start, with the Hurricanes scoring on their first 5 possessions and opening up an early 16-9 lead; from there, Coach Bennett's defense looked more like....Coach Bennett's defense. UM scored 2 PPP on those first 5 possessions, but .88 PPP on their next 50 (.98 PPP overall). Despite worries about the team's defense after allowing UNC to score 93 points, nothing appears to be "broken" with the team's signature unit, late game breakdowns notwithstanding.
To their credit, the Hurricanes did an outstanding job defensively, focusing intently on shutting down UVA's perimeter shooting and holding the team to 5 of 15 from behind the arc (1 for 10 in the first 32 minutes and 4 for 5 in the last 8). Joe Harris was unfazed by this development, using the opportunity to take the ball to the rim with authority and finishing with 16 points on 7 for 16 shooting and 7 rebounds. Paul Jesperson knocked down 2 of his 4 three-point shots to finish with 8 points, and Justin Anderson had a strong outing, finishing with 7 points and 3 blocks.
Virginia's ability to compete against a talented Hurricane front-court kept the team in the game. The Hoos brought some perfectly timed post double teams, forcing 8 turnovers and keeping Reggie Johnson away from the hoop. UVA won the rebounding battle, grabbing an impressive 80% of Miami's misses (compared to Miami's DReb% of 76.5%), a credit to an outstanding effort by Akil Mitchell as well as some of the team's guards who fought to find themselves in the right places.
Jontel Evans finished with 5 points and 7 assists to 1 turnover; however, he still must improve his game management decisions, especially late in the shot clock. Considering the amount of dangerous shooters around him, Jontel does not need to handle the ball for the last 15 seconds of each possession. Despite being visibly hobbled, Darion Atkins continues to get closer and closer to reestablishing himself as a factor, as he played 11 minutes and scored 2.
In the grand scheme of things, a loss at Miami won't change anybody's opinion of UVA for the worse. However, with one late defensive lapse, the team lost a huge opportunity. A win wouldn't have clinched an NCAA tournament spot, but it would have taken plenty of pressure off the team in its last 5 regular season games. The game may have been a close one, and the team may have passed some sort of "eye test," but a loss is still a loss....especially in the eyes of the RPI computer rankings.
Instead, UVA's margin for error continues to decrease. Virginia has 5 games to play, and must go 4-1 to finish 12-6 and have any degree of comfort headed into the ACC Tournament and Selection Sunday. The Hoos head home this weekend, taking on Georgia Tech before Duke visits next Thursday. A 2-0 week (and win over Duke) would give the team some breathing room, while a loss would likely require UVA to finish the regular season on a three-game winning streak to stay on the good side of the bubble.