Against Maryland, Virginia is let down by effort on defense

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

At every Virginia practice, the Cavaliers preach the same defensive demands. It's a never-ending emphasis and the bedrock of the program Coach Tony Bennett is trying to build in Charlottesville.

Throughout Bennett's first season at Virginia, the Cavaliers' offense has often revealed deficiencies. Bennett's pack-line defense, though, has kept the Cavaliers afloat.

Somewhere between Blacksburg and College Park, the Cavaliers lost the defensive intensity and fundamentals that are taught every day the team gathers together. As a result, Virginia lost its third consecutive game, an embarrassing 85-66 defeat at the hands of Maryland at Comcast Center.

"We've hung in there with good defense and shaky offense, but we haven't hung in a game yet with poor defense," Bennett said. "You can't ever take for granted that just because you played good defense in the past, it's just going to be there."

Bennett was especially crushed by struggles with transition defense, help defense and preventing offensive rebounds. Even when Virginia (14-9, 5-5 ACC) set up in the half court, its defense could not contain the Terrapins.

The Cavaliers entered the game leading the ACC by holding opponents to 61 points per game. Maryland (17-7, 7-3) reached that total with more than 13 minutes remaining.

The Terrapins shot 56.3 percent from the field, including 70 percent in the first half. Greivis Vasquez scored 25 of his 30 points before halftime, when Maryland marched to a 52-35 lead.

"Personally, I was very upset with that," guard Sylven Landesberg said. "I decided to step up to the challenge in the second half, but it was already out of hand."

Virginia tried guarding Vasquez with Jontel Evans, Mustapha Farrakhan, Sammy ZeglinskiCalvin Baker and even Landesberg in the second half, but no one could stop the Maryland star. The Cavaliers' roster is loaded with combination guards -- there are three regular players between 6 feet 2 and 6-4 -- yet does not have a player who can shut down a tall guard (Vasquez is 6-6).

"It's got to be done with our team defense, and that was lacking," Bennett said. "There were so many holes in it tonight."

Landesberg remained without answers because the defense is preached every day. He said nothing occurred that Virginia had not worked on before, and he appeared embittered that the team let down its defensive-minded coach.

Most disheartening to Bennett was that the Cavaliers were outplayed "from a tangible standpoint, and an intangible standpoint." The effort that appeared constant through the previous 22 games was absent and, to a man, the players remaining in the Cavaliers' locker room a few minutes after the game admitted such.

"We just came out here without passion," junior forward Will Sherrill said.

Senior captain Jerome Meyinsse said there was no excuse for the performance -- "fatigue can't account for allowing them to score 52 points in the first half," Meyinsse said -- and took it upon himself and the team's other two captains to ensure that the team does not fall apart now that it has lost five of seven games.

Bennett admitted that Virginia took "a step back," and it came at a crippling time in the schedule. The Cavaliers return to practice on Tuesday to prepare for a game on Wednesday against Florida State at John Paul Jones Arena. Bennett labeled it a "gut-check time."

Virginia has maintained a winning record throughout the ACC calendar, but that cushion is gone. Now, the Cavaliers must win to avoid slipping below .500 amid a stretch in which the once-promising season has quickly faded to mediocrity.

"I can handle a loss, but not like that," Bennett said. "We have to respond. We have to respond."

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