CLEMSON, S.C. — Forced to watch from the sideline as his team suffered a second straight game of offensive ineptitude, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett decided to take his frustration out on the officials.
Normally laid back on the bench, Bennett snarled and sneered at the referees throughout, chastising them for what he considered some uneven calls. But it mattered little given the shot clock violations, air balls and blown lay-ins that came to define Virginia’s 59-44 loss to Clemson on Saturday afternoon.
“They played more physical defensively than anybody we’ve seen this year,” said leading scorer Joe Harris, the lone Cavaliers player to finish in double figures with 14 points. “It almost seemed like there was a lid on the basket.”
Virginia’s 44 points were a season low and the fewest it has scored since a loss to Duke on Feb. 26, 2011. The Cavaliers shot just 35.4 percent with Clemson packing the lane, missing 31 shots. The Tigers only attempted 33 the entire game.
It was particularly galling because Virginia was coming off a 55-52 loss to Wake Forest on Wednesday in which the Demon Deacons didn’t need to score a field goal over the final 10 minutes of regulation.
Still, the Cavaliers did have a chance to take the lead early in the second half, but forwards Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins both blew point-blank shots near the basket and Clemson responded. Buoyed by back-to-back three-pointers from Milton Jennings, the Tigers went on a 9-0 run that broke open a tie game.
The Cavaliers tried to battle back, drawing to within six at one point. But consecutive blocks by Devin Booker on freshmen Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson (Montrose Christian) on fast-break layups allowed Jennings to come back down the floor and nail another three-pointer. It put Clemson back up, 44-35, with less than seven minutes remaining.
“I feel like we got good looks. We got the ball wherever we wanted,” said Mitchell, who had seven points and nine rebounds. “It’s just not finishing. I think that’s what bothered us more.”
To make matters worse, Virginia struggled to slow down Clemson’s Jennings and Booker all afternoon, the former finishing with a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds, including two banked-in three-pointers.
Booker, the younger brother of Washington Wizards forward Trevor Booker, finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, and his ability to back down Virginia’s post defenders allowed the Tigers to shoot 76.9 percent from the field (10 of 13) after halftime.
Clemson also made 19 of 27 free throw attempts. Virginia only had eight chances from the foul line, making five.
It didn’t help Virginia that Atkins was again hobbled by a shin injury he suffered prior to Cavaliers’ win over North Carolina last Sunday. He didn’t play the final eight minutes of Saturday’s game and left Littlejohn Coliseum wearing a walking boot. Bennett said Atkins would be reevaluated when the team returns to Charlottesville.
But it was Virginia’s lack of offense that must be fixed going forward, particularly senior point guard Jontel Evans. He had another poor outing (two points, three assists and a team-high five turnovers in 33 minutes) and admitted after the game, “I’m still not back to the Jontel Evans that you guys are used to seeing” since returning from offseason foot surgery.
Bennett, meanwhile, was left to ponder all the open shots his team missed en route to a second consecutive discouraging defeat.
“A lot of those looks we got weren’t going in and that was trouble,” he said. “When we’re not making shots, it puts a little pressure on us.”