CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia missed shots early, often and late Tuesday night, and by the time the final buzzer sounded, the Cavaliers had missed out on a chance to play at Madison Square Garden.
Virginia simply dug itself too big of a hole during a dreadful start, and didn’t help itself with some sloppy play late during a 59-53 loss to Delaware in the quarterfinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off at John Paul Jones Arena. The Blue Hens will now move on to the semifinal round in New York during Thanksgiving weekend, while Virginia (1-2) settles for two consolation games next week in Charlottesville.
“It’s a heartbreaker,” forward Darion Atkins said. “We really wanted to go [to Madison Square Garden]. Honestly, we all know that we’re better than Delaware. We can’t take it back.”
Guard Joe Harris led the Cavaliers with a game-high 20 points, forward Akil Mitchell notched a double-double (15 points and 13 rebounds) and Atkins contributed 11 points off the bench, but Virginia couldn’t come up with a basket when it counted most.
Trailing 54-50 following two turnovers by freshman Justin Anderson, Harris got trapped under the basket and Mitchell couldn’t get a shot off before the shot clock expired with 47 seconds remaining in the game. The Blue Hens (2-1), who were picked to finish second in the CAA this preseason, only needed free throws to ice a road victory after that.
In the end, the Cavaliers simply couldn’t overcome a horrendous performance in the game’s first 20 minutes. Virginia had more turnovers (nine) than field goals (six), shot 22.2 percent from the floor and scored just 15 points before halftime.
The Cavaliers were once again without a true point guard for most of the night, and it showed. They finished with just 10 assists and seven players accounted for a combined seven points. Senior guard Jontel Evans made his season debut after offseason foot surgery, but he played only three minutes in the first half and committed two turnovers.
“The guys got a little panicky and we stopped almost running offense,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “It was just the first chance a guy got, he’d squirt one up. It didn’t look like anything that we tried to work on.”
But after watching its deficit grow to 18 early in the second half, Virginia put itself in position to score a come-from-behind win. Mitchell sparked a 25-6 surge with a one-handed put-back dunk and freshman Evan Nolte hit a three-pointer with less than eight minutes remaining to put Virginia up, 42-41.
After a timeout, though, Delaware responded with an 8-0 run of its own, getting two three-pointers from guard Devon Saddler (team-high 15 points).
“We lost our way a little bit defensively, and it’s the same story since I’ve been here,” said Mitchell, a junior. “When our defense deflates, our offense goes with it.”
It wasn’t long before a sparse crowd began streaming for the exits, a chance for Virginia’s young roster to prove itself on the national stage in the Big Apple gone amid a bevy of missed shots and missed opportunities.
“You have to earn it, and you know, Delaware earned it. We couldn’t,” Bennett said. “You play that kind of first half and that’s kind of a hole that’s too deep to come back from.”