CLEMSON, S.C. — There came a point in the second half at Clemson’s Littejohn Coliseum on Tuesday night at which the game, and perhaps the season, revved beyond Virginia’s control. Junior guard Jontel Evans drove to the basket and scored, cutting the Cavaliers’ deficit to three with just more than eight minutes to play.
Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon forced a steal. Evans knifed into the lane once more, but missed a reverse layup. Sophomore guard Joe Harris grabbed the rebound and went up, but the ball was knocked loose.
In the aftermath of No. 22 Virginia’s 60-48 loss at Clemson, suffered Tuesday night at Clemson, it was easy to diagnose that moment as the breaking point for Coach Tony Bennett’s squad. Enraged at what he believed was an uncalled foul, Bennett stomped and howled down the sideline, his face flushed.
Meantime, Clemson scored on a transition layup, and the Tigers’ lead swelled from there.
Said Bennet afterward: “When you’re in a game when it’s a lower-scoring game and the possessions really matter, whether it’s a turnover on our part or what you perceive as maybe one of your guys got fouled but it wasn’t called. . . . Those possessions, they really hurt, and they sting.
“So that’s probably why I was very animated because — I’ll watch the tape. I thought our guy got bumped, and so I thought, ‘Boy, that was big.’ ”
The Cavaliers (19-6, 6-5 ACC) have lost consecutive games for the first time all season, and with five conference contests remaining, their grasp on an NCAA tournament bid appears anything but secure. That wasn’t the case less than two weeks ago.
But Virginia’s devolution has been fairly rapid. The Cavaliers tallied 18 turnovers Tuesday. They have lost three of their last four contests and averaged 16.7 turnovers in those defeats. There was a time this season when Virginia was the ACC’s standard-bearer in ball security, but that time has past.
“We were flustered all night,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said Tuesday. “It started with the early turnovers, and we just couldn’t get settled in and get a good rhythm going.”
With Harris limited because of a broken left (non-shooting) hand, the Cavaliers started a lineup that Bennett later conceded could not “stretch the defense.” Virginia made 3 of 16 three-pointers (18.8 percent), which allowed Clemson to devote more attention to defending fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer.
Scott finished with 13 points, and Evans’s dribble penetration also helped keep Virginia in contention as long as it was. Evans tallied 17 points, a career-best in ACC play.
But he also was one of four Cavaliers who registered at least three turnovers. At halftime, Bennett wrote on the dry-erase board in the visiting locker room: Value the ball.
Virginia turned over the ball eight times in the second half. During a timeout with just less than 12 minutes to play, Bennett slammed his clipboard to the floor. A pen cap flew out of the team huddle.
“We’ve got to be alert,” Evans said. “We’ve got to do the little things. We were supposed to choke, but guys were trapping. We just wasn’t alert and ready in the second half.”
Clemson (13-12, 5-6) scored 19 points off Virginia turnovers and shut out the Cavaliers in fast-break points, 10-0. Each team had only 60 possessions on the night, but the pace at which they were played proved too much for Virginia to handle.
“Our mistakes got to us and just messed with us down the stretch of the game,” Evans said. “We could never get that groove.”