OMAHA — Throughout the season, the Virginia men’s basketball team frequently pushed the limits of its defense. The Cavaliers won eight games while scoring 65 points or less. They won four games while scoring less than 60 points. Once, they prevailed while scoring less than 50.
And their losses? Seven of their nine defeats entering Friday had come by three points or less.
But in its first NCAA tournament appearance in five years, Virginia learned its reliance on defense could withstand only so much offensive ineptitude. Seventh-seeded Florida defeated the 10th-seeded Cavaliers, 71-45, in a West Region round-of-64 matchup that revealed Virginia’s defensive breaking point.
The Cavaliers shot 38.3 percent from the field and made 3 of 18 three-point attempts, and they acknowledged afterward their poor offensive performance had a direct effect on their ability to adhere to Coach Tony Bennett’s defensive principles.
“Even when we got the good looks, we were struggling to make the shots,” Bennett said. “In the past, we’ve been able to hold in there with defense. But we put too much pressure on it, and then it collapsed.”
And so Virginia (22-10) concluded a resurgent season — it earned its most victories in 17 years — by posting the program’s worst NCAA tournament defeat since it lost by 37 to Michigan in the 1989 Elite Eight.
“You just don’t want to go out like that, getting blasted like that,” said fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, who finished with a team-high 15 points. “It’s very frustrating.”
All week, the Cavaliers heard about how trigger-happy Florida (24-10) was from beyond the three-point arc. The Gators entered the game averaging 25.5 three-point attempts and 9.9 made three-pointers per contest. So the Cavaliers resolved not to let Florida beat them from the perimeter. The Gators made 4 of 23 three-point attempts Friday.
The problem, though, was that by devoting so much attention to defending the three-point arc, Virginia spread itself out and became vulnerable to lane penetration and rebounding issues. Florida outscored the Cavaliers, 44-24, in the paint, owned a 9-2 advantage on the offensive glass, claimed a 12-0 edge in second-chance points and made 80 percent (24 of 30) of the two-point shots they took.
“I think we had a little bit too much respect for their shooters,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said. “We pressed up a little bit too much. I think we kind of underestimated their quickness a little bit. We just weren’t packed like we usually are.”
Virginia was not as sound with its ball security as it usually is, either. Florida flustered the Cavaliers all game with a full-court press that made up with persistence what it lacked in intensity. Florida scored 18 points off Virginia’s 13 turnovers, and junior guard Jontel Evans acknowledged afterward the Cavaliers were too sped up for most of the afternoon.
“You could tell in the second half, especially when they got it rolling, they made a point of going for the throat, and they weren’t going to give us any leeway to try and come back,” sophomore guard Joe Harris said.
Midway through the second half, near the end of what became a 17-2 Florida run, fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski stole the ball and passed it to Scott, who fumbled it out of bounds.
Moments later, the Gators made a three-pointer to push their lead to 19, and at that point, Mitchell said later, he looked at his teammates and knew a disappointing outcome was inevitable.
“I could just read the body language of the rest of the guys,” Mitchell said. “None of us are quitters. Coach Bennett won’t let us be. But you could just feel the energy kind of sap away and start to realize it was coming to an end.”