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At Virginia, It's Time To Pick Up the Pieces

By Michael Arkush
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page D13

The Virginia Cavaliers must have known it was coming. Beating Miami was one thing. Beating Duke? This was not the team, and certainly not the year, to pull off that kind of stunner on such a big stage.

Even so, the official conclusion to the season for Virginia was still not easy for the players to accept. There had been so much promise: A win against then-No. 10 Arizona, the weeks ranked among the top 25, the prospect of an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2001.

"He can't go out there and play the game for us," guard T.J. Bannister said in support of Pete Gillen, above, under fire after a 14-15 season. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

Then, in January, it all started to fall apart and never really turned around. The Cavaliers lost their first five conference games, and their last five. There was a brief period of hope, a three-game run in the middle of February, but that was derailed by an 85-61 setback to North Carolina.

"A couple of losses took us back," said forward Elton Brown, who ended his career with nine points and four rebounds. "The whole team got rattled, not realizing it's a long season. We had a young team. It's a tough conference. To never go to the tournament, it hurts."

Another factor, in the view of some players, was the loss of senior forward Jason Clark, who was ruled academically ineligible in January. Clark had been acknowledged as the team's best defensive player the last two seasons.

"He was a big part of our team," guard T.J. Bannister said. "It took a lot away."

Still, there was plenty of pride in the locker room, a feeling that, one night after surviving a tough first-round match against sixth-seeded Miami, they had put forth a very courageous effort against one of the premier teams in the country. The Cavaliers, after trailing by 12 points at the half, could have given up. Instead, they sliced the lead to two and had the momentum. The possibility of an upset appeared tantalizing.

"We outplayed them in a lot of areas," said freshman point guard Sean Singletary, who led the Cavaliers with 16 points and seven rebounds. "We just didn't have enough in the tank. They were fresh; that's why they won."

Added senior Devin Smith, who scored 13 points: "We were in there for the majority of the game."

Singletary and Bannister, a sophomore, both voiced support for Coach Pete Gillen, whose seventh season on the Cavaliers sideline concluded disappointingly. They expressed hope that, despite the persistent rumors, last night was not Gillen's last game.

"I feel he's a great coach," Bannister said. "He's taught me a lot of stuff. I don't want to see him go. I'll be praying for him. He can't go out there and play the game for us."

Nonetheless, regardless of whatever happens with Gillen, the two guards see better days ahead.

"The future is bright," Singletary said. "We've just got to keep together. We have a strong class coming in."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company