CHARLOTTESVILLE — It took the Virginia men’s basketball team more than four months to suffer two home losses. But when the Cavaliers left John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday night, another opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden having slipped through their fingers, the second defeat left no room for redemption.
The loss closed the door on a 19-game home winning streak this campus hadn’t seen since Ralph Sampson was dunking on opponents at old University Hall.
Virginia’s previous home loss came Nov. 13 to Delaware, and cost the Cavaliers (23-12) a trip to New York as part of the NIT Season Tip-Off. This one also cost them a trip to the Big Apple.
Instead, the Hawkeyes (24-12) advanced to face Maryland on Tuesday in the NIT semifinals.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were left to ponder a final game in which the same flaws that hurt them down the stretch of the regular season surfaced again.
“When you play against teams that are real tough, it’s kind of a gut check and you realize this is what [tournament basketball] is like,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “There’s some wisdom in that for us to work really hard this offseason.”
Freshman Justin Anderson, an All-Met from Montrose Christian, had his best game of the season.
He finished with a career-high 24 points, six rebounds, five blocks, three steals and two assists. His classmate, center Mike Tobey, added 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks off the bench.
But Virginia’s two all-ACC selections failed to provide sufficient support.
Junior Joe Harris continued his late-season slide, hitting just 4 of 11 shots and finishing with 11 points and four turnovers. Forward Akil Mitchell, the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer this year, mustered only nine points and seven rebounds.
Virginia took the lead on three occasions after halftime, the final one coming on the heels of a highlight-reel block at the rim by Anderson and a dunk from Tobey with 13 minutes 33 seconds remaining.
But each time the Cavaliers threatened to pull away in front of 11,141 enthusiastic fans, Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble answered with a basket.
Marble, the son of Iowa all-time leading scorer Roy Marble, scored 24 points and prompted Bennett to remark “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” after he proved to be a matchup nightmare for a cavalcade of Virginia defenders.
The Hawkeyes also shot 52 percent from the field in the second half, and 49.1 percent for the game, while out-rebounding the Cavaliers, 34-26.
After a 9-0 run staked Iowa to a 12-point lead late in the second half, it maintained the double-digit advantage by hitting all 15 of its free throws.
“They wore us down,” Bennett said. “We gave them way too many easy looks.”
In the aftermath, many on Virginia emphasized the positives.
The Cavaliers overachieved after being picked to finish seventh in the ACC, and their inexperienced roster gained valuable postseason minutes during three NIT games. Only point guard Jontel Evans graduates and the team gains transfer Anthony Gill and redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom sat out this season.
But more than four months later, another team was celebrating a trip to Madison Square Garden on Virginia’s home floor. It was a reality even the most optimistic struggled to come to grips with.
“All we can do is learn from this season,” Anderson said, before cutting himself off. “I can’t believe it’s over.”