Dave Leitao’s club fell by three points on the road at Syracuse.
Playing its first road game of the 2008-09 campaign, Virginia played its best 30 minutes of basketball to date in this young season. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Syracuse didn’t crumble during that portion of the game and rallied to win the last 10 minutes and remain unbeaten. The Orange eventually pulled out the victory, 73-70, to improve to 6-0 while UVa fell to 3-2 with the loss.
For a team that just lost to Liberty at home on Tuesday night, the near-miss showed signs of growth for a young Cavalier team in search of consistency.
“I was very impressed with how Virginia played even though they lost the game,” Cuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I was impressed with how they move the ball and how they’ve played this year. I give Virginia a lot of credit for the way they came in here and played tonight.”
“We started off the game quick and I think for the first 28 minutes we had a pretty good script going,” Virginia coach Dave Leitao told the Virginia Sports Network. “But, as I look back upon it and as I watch the film, [there were] easy breakdowns defensively and probably a half dozen or eight trips almost consecutively where they got easy baskets, dunks, or something right at the front of the rim. We didn’t do what we were supposed to or what we had been doing defensively for the first half and for a portion of the second half.”
Indeed, the Hoos had handled themselves well on both ends of the floor for the first three-quarters of the game and it was paying off in front of 22,096 fans in the Carrier Dome. They held Syracuse to 36% shooting in the first half (9 of 25) and forced 11 turnovers as well; the Cavaliers also made 16 of 35 shots on offense to take a 40-29 lead into intermission. Virginia built on that to start the second half, easing out to a 12-point lead. The visitors even fought off an early second-half surge from the Orange and when Jeff Jones dropped off a pass to Mike Scott for an easy lay-up, the Cavs carried a 50-42 lead into the under 12-minute media timeout at 11:38.
That’s when things started to slowly unravel on the defensive end and the lead slowly deflated as a result. As Leitao noted, Cuse came to life with back-to-back dunks (Rick Jackson) and an easy driving lay-up for an uncontested Jonny Flynn over the next two minutes. Those three possessions cut it to 52-49 when Leitao called a timeout at the 10:05 mark, which provided a temporary reprieve thanks to two Jerome Meyinsse free throws.
However, Sylven Landesberg and Sammy Zeglinski picked up their fourth fouls in a three-second span on the next defensive possession. Landesberg fouled away from the ball to send Syracuse to the line and when Andy Rautins missed the back end of the one-and-one free throws, Zeglinski drew a loose ball whistle on a scramble for the long rebound. Following that turn of events, the Orange flipped a 54-49 deficit into a 62-56 lead courtesy of a 13-2 run – Rautins buried back-to-back 3-pointers during the burst to key the turn-around. The spurt was part of a strong second half offensively for Syracuse, which shot 60% (12 of 20) after intermission while committing just 4 turnovers.
“We executed a little bit better [in this game than earlier in the season] and we were more aggressive with our mindset probably more than anything else,” Leitao said. “But when they came back at us … and made their run, that was another opportunity to stand up both emotionally and on the court with execution and we did not do that.”
While the final 10 minutes didn’t follow the upset script for Virginia, there were signs of an improving basketball team in the first 30. The Cavaliers were stronger defensively, particularly against dribble drives. They moved the ball more effectively offensively, feeding the post with some regularity and finding open shots off of set plays. The energy and intensity level seemed higher with fewer lapses in focus. The result was arguably the best half – and eventually 30 minutes – of basketball played by this group this season.
In the end, several players profited statistically from the improved play. Landesberg put up 16 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals while Zeglinski added 14 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals to go with 5 turnovers. Calvin Baker made 6 of 10 shots to finish with 14 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and a career-high 4 steals to go with 4 turnovers. Scott posted his fourth career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds while adding a career-high 4 assists. Meyinsse contributed 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 1 block. On an additional statistical note, Assane Sene made his debut (and first start) in a Cavalier uniform and contributed 1 point, 1 block, and 1 assist in seven minutes cut short by foul trouble.
Still, the success didn’t carry over to the game’s final stretch and that inconsistent hiccup is something the Hoos are going to have to overcome in order to post more wins this season.
“I thought we got really mentally disorganized. Our quality possessions stopped and we stopped scoring going to the basket. … We turned the ball over below the free throw line and we weren’t spaced properly – that’s an execution thing,” Leitao said. “I thought offensively our execution, because they stepped up defensively, wasn’t very good. And obviously as I said defensively, it became to easy for them.”