ORLANDO — Before his team took the floor for Saturday night’s East Region second-round game against Florida, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett was reminded of how powerful it can be to win in the NCAA tournament. Down the hall from the Cavaliers’ locker room, he could hear the wild celebrations of Xavier, which had beaten Florida State to reach the Sweet 16 earlier at Amway Center. In the nightcap, Bennett hoped to follow suit.
A couple hours later, he was ruminating about that moment after his team had suffered a 65-39 loss to the Gators, which marked the lowest-scoring output in Virginia’s long and decorated NCAA tournament history.
“The thrill of victory, and then you get the agony of defeat. You feel that,” Bennett said afterward.
That feeling was made all the more painful because this marked the final time senior guard London Perrantes would wear a Virginia uniform. As Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, the team tweeted out a bittersweet tribute to Perrantes, thanking him for all of his contributions over a career in which he tied a program record with 138 appearances — he started in 134 of those games and finished with 108 wins — and 1,225 points.
Only six of those came Saturday night as Florida’s ultra-athletic lineup harassed Perrantes into a 2-for-12 shooting performance. A year ago, Perrantes had been deeply impacted by the final game of Malcolm Brogdon, who said goodbye after the Cavaliers were stunned by Syracuse in the Elite Eight. As the only returning senior this season, Perrantes shouldered much of the leadership role for this team, and some of his younger teammates had been touched by his final showing.
“Coach Bennett talked about it. They’re going to have to come back, and if they want to get to that next level, it’s going to — you’ve got to take this feeling and put the fuels to the fire and get back to work during the summer, during the offseason, so we don’t — so they don’t have this feeling again,” Perrantes said.
Bennett said he would go back to the drawing board to assess where things went wrong with this team Saturday night. He vowed to find spots where he could “tighten up” ahead of next year. He will confront questions about the offensive struggles against the Gators; Virginia shot 29.6 percent from the field and missed 14 of its 15 three-point attempts.
“I told you guys on whatever day, I hold this with open hands, and I have to,” Bennett said. “I have to learn from it. I’m very fortunate. I look at this opportunity as a blessing, to coach, to be in these settings. And I say, if you’re going to take the good, you have to take the hard and grow from it, and that’s what I will try to do.”
Bennett still pointed out that this team tackled high expectations — without the offensive weapons Virginia had grown accustomed to in previous years — and won 23 games. For all of their limitations on the offensive end, the Cavaliers spent another season reinforcing their place as the country’s most efficient defensive team, holding opponents to 56.4 points per game entering Saturday.
Virginia certainly will miss the production of Perrantes, who aside from helping spearhead Bennett’s pack-line defense also led the team with 12.7 points and 3.8 assists per game.
But there will be a more seasoned roster next winter, starting with forward Isaiah Wilkins, who was the team’s best rebounder and defender for much of the year. But he missed significant time over the final three weeks of the season with an undisclosed illness, which also kept him out of Saturday’s game against the Gators.
While Bennett admitted that Wilkins’s absence impacted his team and its options, he also searched for silver linings in the setback.
A roster full of young players picked up crucial postseason tournament experience over the past two weeks, he said, including freshman guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, as well as redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite, who led the team with nine points Saturday after starting alongside redshirt sophomore center Jack Salt. The 6-foot-11 Salt will be back, as will rising senior guards Devon Hall, Darius Thompson and Marial Shayok. They will inherit the leadership mantle from Perrantes.
“I know they’ll be back. We’ve got some good young talent, and Coach Bennett is a genius behind it,” Perrantes said. “So they’ll get back to work, and they’ll be back for sure.”