ORLANDO — Virginia Coach Tony Bennett doesn’t often look flustered, especially when it comes to the way his vaunted pack-line defense performs. But as he walked off the floor at halftime at Amway Center, his face appeared full of questions after Florida closed the first half on a 12-0 run that included a wide-open dunk off a pick-and-roll to beat the buzzer.
Bennett briefly sought out senior guard London Perrantes to address what had just transpired. Perrantes looked equally perplexed. The answers never came for Bennett or fifth-seeded Virginia in a 65-39 loss, which denied the Cavaliers a second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and made their reputation as the country’s best defensive team a startling afterthought.
A tight, low-scoring affair was expected Saturday night — Bennett predicted a smash-mouth contest because Florida also entered this game with one of the nation’s most productive defensive teams — but the Gators, unlike the Cavaliers, also had the offense to match.
“I don’t even know what was going through my mind. A bunch of emotions, obviously,” Perrantes said. “It was over. It was over for me. I couldn’t do anything else to help me extend my season or my career.”
Florida (26-8), which shot 46 percent from the field, advanced to face No. 8 seed Wisconsin in the East Region semifinals in New York. The Badgers upset top-seeded Villanova, 65-62, in Buffalo earlier Saturday. It would have provided intriguing fodder had Virginia advanced to meet Wisconsin, the place Bennett started his college coaching career as an assistant. But that prospect fizzled behind a 21-0 Florida run that bridged the end of the first half and early into the second.
“You saw a really good defensive team play against a team that was really struggling offensively,” Bennett said. “The thing that was frustrating was we really accomplished a lot this year. And then to end that way is what obviously really stings. It really does.”
Virginia (23-11) struggled to contain the length and athleticism of 6-foot-9 forwards Devon Robinson and Justin Leon, who combined for 28 points and 21 rebounds and helped spark the crucial run to close the first half with Florida up 31-17.
After Virginia had pulled within 19-17 on a layup by guard Darius Thompson with 5:10 remaining in the first half, Leon responded with eight straight points, flashing his inside-out versatility with a finish at the rim that led to a three-point play and another three-pointer off a pick and roll that Virginia couldn’t cover.
Florida center Kevarrius Hayes finished off the burst with two baskets of his own, including a dunk off another poor Virginia rotation with two seconds remaining before halftime.
The 17 points marked the lowest halftime output by Virginia this season. The defensive struggles were compounded by the Cavaliers’ own offensive shortcomings. Virginia shot just 30 percent from the field, including 1 for 15 from three-point range.
“Their length and quickness got to us a little bit,” Virginia center Jack Salt said.
Bennett didn’t have the luxury to go to a five-guard lineup like he did in the Cavaliers’ first-round win over UNC Wilmington. He simply couldn’t afford to take his team’s size off the court against the mountainous Gators. But that led to little scoring production, and it was compounded by putrid outside shooting.
Virginia shot just 8 for 28 from the field in the first 20 minutes, including just 1 for 7 from three-point range. After Thompson’s basket cut the deficit to two with just over five minutes remaining before halftime, Virginia didn’t score again until reserve forward Mamadi Diakite converted a layup with 17:15 remaining in the second half. Florida led 40-19 at that point and was never threatened.
“If we’re not shooting well, it’s hard for us because we don’t score a whole lot in the post. And they’re potent,” Bennett said.
Perrantes had tried to spark another run to perhaps prolong his college career for another week, but he went just 2 for 12 from the field and finished with six points. Bennett finally pulled Perrantes with 4:15 remaining. Perrantes just sat with his hands clasped until the final buzzer rang.