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Virginia basketball vs. Maryland: Cavaliers looking to toughen up as season winds down

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The yellow, swollen fingers on Virginia sophomore guard Joe Harris’s broken left hand are still sensitive to the touch. The ring finger is taped to the pinkie. His palm is wrapped like a boxer’s before a fight. There’s a half-inch of plastic and foam padding in there.

This is how Harris will make it through practices and games the rest of the season: with essentially eight working fingers and the base of a hand that is achingly tender whenever it is inactive. The fracture is stable now but may eventually require corrective surgery.

So Harris, who played through the injury Tuesday against Clemson, is well qualified to answer the following question: Have the Cavaliers been tough enough lately?

“Honestly, no, we haven’t been,” he said following practice Thursday, two days before Virginia (19-6, 6-5 ACC) hosts Maryland (15-10, 5-6). “At the beginning of the year I really felt like we would impose our will on teams, especially defensively, because that’s the purpose of our defense. . . . I felt like these last couple games, we played tough for maybe 25 minutes out of a game, but then there’s 10-, 15-minute stretches where it’s just not there, or hasn’t been the same as it might have been at the beginning” of the conference season.

There was a time when Virginia was thought to be the third-best team in the ACC, when it seemed a sure bet the Cavaliers would return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. That was when Virginia was off to its best start to a season in three decades, when the Cavaliers’ defense was forcing opponents into submission.

But Virginia has dropped three of its past four games, the last two by double digits. During the second half of the Cavaliers’ 70-52 loss last Saturday at North Carolina, the Tar Heels went on a 22-5 run.

“That was the first game that somebody had really beaten us, really put it on us pretty bad. And then Clemson, obviously, too,” Harris said. “Every other loss that we had, they were all close losses. Those games . . . teams might have just beaten us instead of us losing.”

Tuesday’s 60-48 loss at Clemson — Harris’s first full game since breaking his non-shooting hand — featured a 16-7 Tigers run in the second half.

Harris, Virginia’s second-leading scorer, tallied two points and three turnovers in 21 minutes off the bench. The Cavaliers once again missed the interior defensive presence of senior center Assane Sene, who might not return this season after fracturing his right ankle Jan. 19.

But that’s not what provoked Coach Tony Bennett’s frustration Tuesday. Virginia, which trailed by just three with eight minutes remaining, ended up allowing Clemson to average 1.16 points per possession in the second half, well above the Tigers’ season average. The Cavaliers turned over the ball 18 times on the night.

“We were right there in the game, and [Bennett] just wanted us to do the things that we do every day in practice,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said. “We just weren’t doing them.”

Prior to Thursday’s practice, Harris said, Bennett implored the Cavaliers to focus solely on what they could control, and then at practice Bennett chided his players whenever he felt they were being “too soft.”

Harris said perhaps his team is in “some sort of funk with the mind-set that we have going into the end of games or when teams make runs on us.” Obviously, he noted, Virginia will try to break out of that in coming games.

But this isn’t a technical flaw in a shot that can be easily diagnosed, or a broken hand that can be taped together for the time being. How does a team improve mental toughness on the fly?

“It might be difficult if guys get tired at the end of the year or something,” Harris said. “But the good teams are able to bear down and have that focus and intensity and be at their best at the end of the season. It’s something that we have to be able to embrace and adapt to and really pick up on and apply to the end of our season.”

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