TALLAHASSEE — No. 16 Virginia entered its matchup Saturday at No. 21 Florida State as the ACC’s surest ballhandling team, and that made the Cavaliers’ 58-55 defeat all the more exasperating for Coach Tony Bennett and his players. Virginia’s 20 turnovers against the Seminoles marked a season high and largely nullified the Cavaliers’ strong offensive finish.
Virginia, which trailed by 13 points in the second half, shot 50 percent after the break, briefly took the lead with just less than five minutes to play and had an open shot at what would have been a tying three-pointer with 17 seconds to play.
Afterward, all several Cavaliers could do was bemoan the numerous chances they said they just gave away.
“It wasn’t because of their defense,” said junior guard Jontel Evans, who finished with five assists and four turnovers. “It was just a lack of execution. We just wasn’t poised with the ball; we wasn’t sound. And that’s why we ended up losing. If [Virginia’s turnover total] was eight, we’d be in here celebrating right now.”
But it wasn’t. Not since Virginia’s 60-52 win Nov. 21 over Drake had the Cavaliers recorded more than 15 turnovers. Virginia tallied 16 against Drake, three days after finishing with 19 in a 57-55 loss to Texas Christian.
According to fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, the Cavaliers’ primary impediment Saturday was the same as it had been during that stretch more than two months ago: themselves.
“Same way with the Drake game at the beginning of the year,” said Scott, who recorded 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven turnovers. “Their defense was okay, but we mainly lost that one because of us.”
To be certain, Florida State’s defense lived up to its stingy reputation. The Seminoles (16-6, 7-1) lead the ACC in steals and rank second in block shots. On Saturday, Florida State tallied 10 steals and blocked five shots.
Virginia (18-4, 5-3 ACC) entered the game averaging an ACC-low 11.1 turnovers per contest, but had recorded 12 by halftime.
The game remained closely contested for most of the afternoon, though, because Florida State was almost equally as careless with the ball. The Seminoles finished with 19 turnovers, though that was less surprising considering they average an conference-high 17 per game.
“We got sped up and rattled in a stretch there where if we want to be competitive or successful in a game like this, you can’t give it away,” Bennett said. “I’m sure [Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton] is as frustrated with some of their turnovers as well, too. It was kind of guys giving it back and forth to each other.”
Bennett called a timeout with 8 minutes 33 seconds remaining in the game and his team down 11. The Cavaliers went with a four-guard lineup out of that huddle, and Evans began making a more concerted effort to penetrate into the lane.
That strategy resulted in a 16-4 Virginia run during which Evans posted six points, two assists, two steals and no turnovers. His transition layup with 4:41 to play pushed the Cavaliers in front, 45-44.
The Seminoles quickly regained the lead and never trailed again, though sophomore guard Joe Harris did have an open look at a three-pointer to tie the score with 17 seconds remaining. Harris, who finished with 16 points, later said he thought the shot was going in.
The ball rimmed in and out.
“It was too many careless turnovers, probably, to come away with a victory,” Bennett said. “But, we gave ’em a scare.”