Let’s be clear about something from the start: No. 15 Virginia’s 47-45 loss Sunday night to Virginia Tech had nothing to do with senior center Assane Sene’s absence. Sene being healthy and on the court in all likelihood would not have altered the final outcome.
As much of a defensive presence as Sene can be, Virginia Tech was not scoring a majority of its points in the paint. The Hokies largely were taking contested jump shots and making them when they needed to.
And, well, let’s just say Sene likely would not have added much to Virginia’s point total.
Virginia no doubt will miss Sene over the next six weeks, particularly against opponents with sizable front courts and on nights when its limited number of post players get into foul trouble. But the Cavaliers (15-3, 2-2 ACC) lost Sunday because they could not shoot. Not from outside the three-point arc. Not from inside the three-point arc. Not from the free throw line.
Coach Tony Bennett called it “the hat trick.” He was being sarcastic.
Until Virginia gets back into some sort of a shooting groove, the Cavaliers will continue to put unfair pressure on their defense to hold foes to ridiculously low scores. Forty-seven should be enough to equal a Virginia win. If it’s not, the tone of this season’s narrative is going to drastically change in a hurry.
1) Four-guard lineup. During a media timeout just less than five minutes into the second half, Bennett made a critical strategic adjustment. Using the traditional three-guard, two-forward lineup the Cavaliers have employed much of the season, Virginia had struggled mightily on the offensive end of the floor to that point. The Cavaliers shot 25 percent from the field in the first half and had settled repeatedly for long jump shots to start the second.
But Bennett implemented a four-guard lineup out of that timeout and stuck with it for much of the rest of the night. Virginia went on an 8-0 run that pushed the Cavaliers back into the lead. Sophomore guard Joe Harris – who, at 6 feet 6, essentially moved into the power forward position – fought for rebounds over several Virginia Tech defenders, and he and Virginia’s other guards began making a concerted effort to penetrate into the paint.
Using four guards was the approach Virginia was forced to take during the latter part of last season, when forward Mike Scott was out with an ankle injury. After Sene suffered an ankle injury Thursday that will keep him out for approximately six weeks, the Cavaliers discovered Sunday such an adjustment might be necessary once again.
“We had our four-guard lineup in because we thought we had to open up the lane and try and get some penetration offensively,” Bennett said. “Defensively, that always puts you in a little bit of a tough spot. They have some bigger guards, and they went in there.”
2) Joe Harris. As we mentioned above, Harris slid into essentially a post role for most of the second half after the Cavaliers opted for a four-guard lineup. And much as he did last season, Harris adjusted well. He finished with 10 points, and eight of them came after Virginia went with the four-guard look. He finished with four offensive rebounds and seven overall. Six of those rebounds came after the Cavaliers went with four guards. Harris was able to hold his own and proved critical to Virginia’s ability to remain in contention until the very end.
3) Second-chance opportunities. The Cavaliers out-rebounded Virginia Tech, 34-27. In terms of offensive rebounds, Virginia held a 13-4 edge. To be fair, the Cavaliers had more chances than the Hokies to grab offensive rebounds. But still, the point is that Virginia’s offensive struggles were not for lack of opportunity. When they missed, the Cavaliers did well to afford themselves another shot. The problem was many times that second shot didn’t fall, either. It should be noted Virginia outscored Virginia Tech in second chance points, 17-0.
1) Three-point shooting. In Virginia’s past four games, the Cavaliers have shot a combined 22 percent (13 for 59) from three-point range. Sunday marked the 10th time this season that Virginia has made one-third of its three-point attempts or fewer. Against Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers made 1 of 14 three-point attempts, and junior guard Jontel Evans was responsible for that lone make. No offense to Evans, but it will not bode well for Virginia on the nights in which he is the lone Cavalier to make a shot from beyond the arc. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon shot 0 for 2 from three-point range. Harris missed all three of his three-point attempts. Fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski shot 0 for 6 from beyond the arc.
It should be noted that Zeglinski has been dealing with a flu bug that he caught shortly after Virginia’s win Thursday at Georgia Tech. Bennett said Zeglinski did not practice Friday and was limited in practice Saturday. Bennett estimated that Zeglinski was not at 100 percent Sunday, though Zeglinski – to his credit – declined to use his illness as any sort of excuse for his shooting performance against the Hokies. He is shooting 16.7 percent (4 for 24) from three-point range in ACC play.
2) Free throw shooting. The Cavaliers have not been shooting particularly well from the charity stripe of late, either. Virginia has made less than 70 percent of its free throw attempts in six of its last seven games, including a 14 for 22 performance (63.6 percent) Sunday. Evans made 1 of 5 free throw attempts. Harris went 2 for 4. The Cavaliers had ample opportunity in the second half to either further cut their deficit or extend their lead at the charity stripe and more often than not failed to do so. Virginia made 6 of 13 free throw attempts after the break.
3) Turnovers. We’ve been through this before. Virginia’s turnover tally (12) was not obscene by any means, but when you play the style that the Cavaliers prefer to play – in which possessions are infrequent and highly valuable commodities – the standard for ball security is heightened.
On Sunday, Virginia turned over the ball six times in each half, and several of them were the result of either carelessness or lack of focus. There was the time a Virginia Tech player hit a teammate in the face with a pass because said teammate was not paying attention. Virginia responded by immediately turning the ball back over. Harris made a pass to Evans, who lost control of the ball. Hokies guard Erick Green corralled it and scored a layup. Another time, Mike Scott intended to throw a pass to Harris out on the perimeter but fired the ball way too high and out of bounds.
Especially in a game in which Virginia is struggling to score, the Cavaliers cannot afford to make those sorts of mistakes.
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