By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008
CHARLOTTE, March 13 -- Dave Leitao wanted, more than anything, to burnish Virginia's reputation as a stalwart defensive team when he arrived in Charlottesville three seasons ago. Bearing down, slapping the floor and stopping the other team would be the bedrock of his teams.
As Virginia walked off the floor for perhaps the final time this season Thursday night after a 94-76 loss to Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC tournament, that vision had fully unraveled. In what might have been point guard Sean Singletary's last college game, the Cavaliers surrendered open shots from all over the Charlotte Bobcats Arena court, dooming their goodbye game with the same problem that hampered them for much of the season.
"It's happened for a number of reasons and a number of causes," Leitao said. "Defense, for 100 years of basketball, has been three-quarters-part mental. That has been a process we have not grabbed for most of the year."
Guard Mamadi Diane made his first seven shots off the bench and scored 18 before missing his final six. Singletary, who received a moving, arena-wide ovation at game's end, added 20 points and 10 assists. But neither could overcome Virginia's porous defense. The Cavaliers (15-15) gave three-point shooters expanses of open space, allowed easy entry passes to the low post and offered ample lanes for the Yellow Jackets to drive through.
Georgia Tech (15-16) fittingly sealed the game with three wide-open, breakaway dunks by forward Alade Aminu in a four-minute stretch that ended with four minutes remaining and the Yellow Jackets up, 83-68. Georgia Tech shot 57 percent, including 13 of 24 three-pointers.
"We didn't have that feeling, that communication," Singletary said. "We just couldn't get any stops."
Virginia's fleeting interest in defense spoiled another game for Singletary, who after flirting with the NBA draft last summer returned for his senior year surely expecting a better finish. The defense also ruined Diane's resurgence. He made all five of his shots, four of them from behind the three-point arc, and scored 14 points in the first half. While Diane broke out, though, starter Adrian Joseph played only seven minutes.
Anthony Morrow made himself the largest benefactor of Virginia's defense, scoring a team-high 18 and making 6 of 9 three-pointers. Jeremis Smith poured in 18 in different fashion, pounding Virginia in the lane.
Virginia stayed with the Yellow Jackets for most of the game -- there were 14 lead changes in the first half -- and took a five-point lead with less than 15 minutes remaining.
Still, "even though the score was close, we were playing uphill," Leitao said. All of Georgia Tech's made shots allowed it to set up its defense of Singletary, sending two players to chase him all 94 feet of the floor.
Singletary contributed eight assists in the first half, anyway, and converted whenever he found his own shot, often in stunning fashion. With Virginia down four, Singletary danced into the lane around two defenders, lofted the ball over another and banked in the shot while being fouled. He made the free throw. But Virginia could overcome its defensive shortcomings for only so long. The game turned into a rout as the clocked ran under eight minutes.
This tournament, and this game, offered Virginia an opportunity to redeem a lost season. The Cavaliers expected another NCAA tournament run when the season began; now, they will need good fortune to land in the National Invitation Tournament. Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said Thursday night he has no idea about Virginia's postseason fate.
As the clock wound down, Leitao motioned for his team to foul -- he wanted one more ovation for Singletary. As Singletary headed toward the bench, everyone in the stands, wearing all sorts of different colors, stood and cheered.
Singletary lingered by the bench, still on the court, as the applause washed over him. Then the whistle blew, the game continued, and Singletary sat on the bench, staring at a water bottle at his feet. There was nothing more he could do.
"Nobody wants to go out losing," Singletary said. "But my time has come to an end."