“Honestly, if we play like this, we don’t deserve to get in,” he said after Virginia failed to reach the ACC tournament semifinals for an 18th straight season, the longest drought in conference history.
Saddled with a slumping offense and outhustled by a more talented opponent that already knew its name would be called on Selection Sunday, the Cavaliers produced a dud of a performance that could relegate them to the National Invitation Tournament.
Knowing well they would need at least one more victory to sway the NCAA tournament selection committee, Virginia (21-11) instead shrunk in the face of that pressure, a defining trait during a late-season swoon that has seen the team lose three of its past four games. The Cavaliers hit just 38.9 percent of their shots and 5 of 20 three-point attempts, and were held to less than 60 points in regulation for a fourth straight game.
Most notably, junior Joe Harris continued to slump. The first-team all-ACC selection was limited to 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting and has connected on just 29.8 percent of his field goal attempts since scoring for a career-high 36 points in an upset of No. 3 Duke on Feb. 28.
Virginia Coach Tony Bennett was quick to point out how much defenses have been focusing on Harris of late, but he also couldn’t avoid the simple truth that “when he struggles a little bit, we struggle.”
But unlike when Virginia beat North Carolina State, 58-55, on Jan. 29, it also lost control of the tempo and played sloppy defense. Though the Wolfpack was credited with just nine fast-break points, it consistently beat the Cavaliers down the court in transition.
Guard Scott Wood paced North Carolina State (24-9) with a game-high 23 points, including seven three-pointers. He hit three of them early in the second half as the Wolfpack’s nine-point halftime lead quickly ballooned to 19. North Carolina State is now 18-2 over the past two seasons when Wood hits at least four three-pointers.
“Our identity is our defense and when we don’t play defense and we’re missing shots, we get blown out of the water like that,” Evans said after the Wolfpack hit 45.8 percent of its shots.
Bennett altered his lineup for the first time in more than a month, giving freshman center Mike Tobey his first start since the season opener at George Mason in place of sophomore guard Paul Jesperson. But the added bulk didn’t seem to make a difference.
North Carolina State outrebounded Virginia, 39-28, and had an answer every time the Cavaliers tried to whittle the deficit to single digits in the second half. Forward C.J. Leslie finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds and senior Richard Howell added 12 rebounds. Freshman T.J. Warren chipped in 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting, left unguarded on many of them.
“We’ve got some young guys that have got to learn to be more physical. I can only do so much,” said Virginia junior forward Akil Mitchell, the lone bright spot with 19 points and eight rebounds.
Like Evans, Bennett was realistic about Virginia’s NCAA tournament chances after the game. The Cavaliers were ranked No. 67 in the RPI as of Friday morning, according to CBSports.com, and since 1994 just two teams have earned at-large berths with an RPI higher than 70.
But even with two days of anxiety awaiting him, Bennett was able to crack a few jokes after a disappointing defeat that may have sealed his squad’s fate.
“I hope we’re not on the NIT bubble, too,” he said with a smirk. “I’ll have to check that.”