With about seven and a half minutes remaining in the second half Tuesday night, Virginia junior guard Jontel Evans capped a fast-break opportunity with an attempt at a reverse layup. He missed, but sophomore guard Joe Harris was there to grab the offensive rebound. The Cavaliers trailed by three at the time.
Harris went up for a would-be put-back attempt, but Clemson forward Milton Jennings knocked the ball loose and then recovered it. As he ignited the Tigers’ transition offense, the Virginia bench erupted over what it felt was a non-call. The Cavaliers – particularly Coach Tony Bennett – wanted a foul called on Jennings and two free throws for Harris.
“It’s just one of those, I don’t know,” Harris said. “It might have been a questionable call, but I probably should have gone up a little bit stronger with it, because I got the rebound and nobody was really there. I was kind of hoping we could get a call there and get to the line and maybe calm down the momentum from their run.”
When it was immediately clear such relief would not come, Bennett stomped and howled down the sideline. He was more consistently irascible Tuesday night than he’d been during any previous game this season, but that moment was the high point of his visible anxiety. As he finished hollering at the officials, Clemson guard Tanner Smith scored a layup.
“That was a questionable call,” Evans said. “Being on the road, I don’t think we’d get that, but we have to play through that. Our mistakes got to us and just messed with us down the stretch of the game. We could never get that groove.”
Instead of an opportunity to cut its deficit to one, Virginia trailed by five. The Cavaliers never again would pull so close to knotting the score. In the end, they lost, 60-48.
“When you’re in a game when it’s a lower-scoring game and the possessions really matter, whether it’s a turnover on our part or what you perceive as maybe one of your guys got fouled but it wasn’t called, or we forget to – we’re not supposed to trap the post, but one of our guys comes and leaves an open three to start the half,” Bennett said. “Those possessions, they really hurt, and they sting.
“So that’s probably why I was very animated because, I’ll watch the tape. I thought our guy got bumped, and so I thought, ‘Boy, that was big.’”
After being tied at 24 at halftime, Virginia’s two primary advantages dissolved because the Cavaliers could not rid themselves of their primary hindrance: turnovers. In the first half, Virginia 52.4 percent and owned a 17-9 rebounding edge. But the Cavaliers also tallied 10 turnovers before the break.
In the second half, Virginia still shot 47.8 percent and remained competitive on the boards (Clemson outrebounded the Cavaliers, 14-11, after the break). To Bennett’s dismay, Virginia remained prone to turnovers, as well. The Cavaliers recorded eight after the intermission.
During a media timeout with just less than 12 minutes to play, Bennett slammed his clipboard down on the court, causing a pen cap to fly out of the team huddle. Virginia trailed by four at the time. Bennett is known for his relatively calm and collected courtside demeanor, but sometimes …
“He gets like that when we’re playing like that,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said. “We had a chance to win it. We were right there in the game, and he just wanted us to do the things that we do every day in practice. We just weren’t doing them.”
The Cavaliers were able to hang close with Clemson for a few minutes longer, but then all their miscues began to catch up with them. Six unanswered Clemson points succeeded the four-point swing following the Harris putback attempt.
Virginia never pulled closer than to within eight points of the lead in the final three minutes.
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