You know that feeling when you’re running downhill and you know your legs are moving too haphazardly for your own good? Typically, that means a face plant is coming.
That’s kind of what it was like to watch No. 22 Virginia fall, 60-48, at Clemson on Tuesday night. Each team had only 60 possessions, but the tempo at which those possessions were played was simply too much for the Cavaliers to handle.
The game lasted 1 hour 40 minutes, which has to make it one of the quickest slow-paced contests of this college basketball season. Virginia tallied 18 turnovers, which negated the fact that the Cavaliers made half their shots and won the rebounding battle (28-23).
And now, with five regular season games remaining and having dropped three of its past four contests, Coach Tony Bennett’s squad has to start wondering how its résuméstacks up against others on the fringe of the NCAA tournament bid conversation. Virginia is 19-6 overall and 6-5 in ACC play.
“I think we need a day off to collect our thoughts and regroup and come back on Thursday and just attack practice with the mind-set that we’ve got to finish the season strong,” junior guard Jontel Evans said.
1) Jontel Evans. The junior guard finished with 17 points, a career-best in ACC play, and shot 8 of 11 from the field. When a lot of other things were going wrong with Virginia’s offense, Evans’s darting dribble penetrations went a long way toward keeping the Cavaliers afloat. His decision-making was not always superb (three assists negated by three turnovers), but on the whole, Evans turned in a very solid performance Tuesday.
Bennett said of Evans: “We’re always looking for that third scorer, well, you know, we got it in Jontel, but we didn’t have the second scorer. But no, Jontel got into the lane and made some plays at the end of the game. He’s improving. He really is. And he’s making pretty good decisions. He’s so powerful and quick that he can get into the lane. He’s worked on his touch and trying to create.
“We’re playing those guys a lot of minutes, and we’re trying to be mindful of that, but it’s what we have. We’ve got to keep trucking.”
2) Malcolm Brogdon. As Bennett mentioned, the Cavaliers were without the full-strength services of its second-most reliable scorer on Tuesday. Sophomore guard Joe Harris did not start for the first time this season and was limited to 21 minutes off the bench due to a broken left hand (more on that in a minute). But Brogdon, a freshman, made his first career start in Harris’s place and performed admirably. He finished with nine points, three assists and two steals in a career-high 34 minutes. He did tally four turnovers, so his performance was far from flawless. But Brogdon certainly did not seem overwhelmed by the opportunity presented to him.
3) First-half rebounding. Clemson center Devin Booker — who entered the game as one of the ACC’s top 10 rebounders — did not grab a single rebound in the first half Tuesday. Virginia out-rebounded the Tigers, 17-9, in the first half, three days removed from the Cavaliers’ most dreadful rebounding performance of the season in a 70-52 loss at North Carolina. Mike Scott finished the game with eight rebounds. Akil Mitchell tallied six. Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski chipped in four each.
But that edge evaporated in the second half, as Clemson out-rebounded Virginia after the break, 14-11.
1) Turnovers. Virginia has lost three of its last four games. In those three defeats, the Cavaliers averaged 16.7 turnovers per contest. Granted, Florida State and Clemson — two of Virginia’s opponents during that stretch — are quality defensive teams. But remember when the Cavaliers used to be the pride of the ACC when it came to ball security? For whatever reason, Virginia simply isn’t making as sound decisions or valuing the ball as much as it was earlier this season. The Cavaliers tallied 18 turnovers Tuesday at Clemson. Nineteen of the Tigers’ points were a direct result of those Virginia miscues.
“Most of it was just us being careless with the ball,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said.
2) Injuries. Particularly, the one through which sophomore guard Joe Harris is suffering through right now. After fracturing his left (non-shooting) hand during Saturday’s loss at North Carolina, Harris did not practice Monday and did not dribble or catch passes during the team’s shoot-around prior to Tuesday’s game.
About a half-hour before tip-off, Bennett came onto the floor — something he rarely does before games — and spoke with team athletic trainer Ethan Saliba about how Harris had looked in warmups.
“We wanted him to warm up really hard and see how it was,” Bennett said afterward. “We had to put the starters in, and I didn’t get enough of a feel or word from [Harris], so we said we’d just start with Malcolm. It was starting to get sore as the game wore on.”
Harris, whose left hand was encased in a thick protective pad that allowed only for wrist flection and finger movement, said he took some painkillers before the game. But he acknowledged the pain in his hand increased as the game progressed.
“I can’t really dribble very well with it right now just because of the swelling and stuff in my hand; it’s up in my fingers so it’s hard to dribble,” Harris said. “Other than that, maybe catching it. But other than that, I didn’t really notice it.”
He played 21 minutes off the bench and finished with two points on 1-of-5 shooting, two rebounds and three turnovers.
Harris said he sports a regular cast on the hand when he’s not playing basketball, and he’ll have to continue to do that for the next 4-6 weeks. He said the likelihood of him getting to wear a less cumbersome protective pad during games is slim.
“It certainly affects him, but he’ll get used to that,” Bennett said. “He’ll get better. I’m just thankful he could get out there and give us some minutes. He wasn’t himself, but I didn’t expect him to be.”
3) Three-point shooting. For the second game in a row, the Cavaliers made 3 of 16 three-point attempts (18.8 percent). Virginia is shooting 29.6 percent from three-point range in conference play.
With their best three-point shooter (Harris) limited for the time being and their second-best three-point shooter (fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski) continuing to struggle through what was become a massive shooting slump — he made 1 of 5 three-point attempts Tuesday, and is shooting 24.1 percent from beyond the arc in ACC play — the Cavaliers are going to have a difficult time stretching any defense, much less one as stingy as Clemson’s.
And if Virginia can’t stretch opposing defenses, that means said opponents are just going to be able to devote more attention to locking down Scott.
“Without Joe, we don’t have as much of a threat out there right now with Sammy struggling shooting, and Jontel is not a three-ball shooter,” Bennett said. “Malcolm, that’s not his strength right now. It’s a hard lineup, and it really condenses things, but we’ve got to keep figuring out ways to do it. … Every possession, you feel it a little more.”
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