Mike Scott and the Virginia offense struggled to get anything going against the Seminoles.
A little more than a year ago, the Virginia men’s basketball team – fresh off a loss to Maryland in College Park – played Florida State at the John Paul Jones Arena, looking to snap a three-game ACC losing streak. That night, the Hoos were feeble in their attempts to score, allowed the Seminoles to shoot 50 percent on the dot, and trailed by as many as 21 points in perhaps their most embarrassing loss of the season – and there were many embarrassing losses to choose from.
On Wednesday night, Virginia once again had just lost its third ACC game in a row on the road against Maryland, and looked for a better effort against the Noles in Charlottesville; and, with the new coaching staff in town, fans likely expected as much. Once again, however, the Hoos were inept on the offensive end; again, FSU shot exactly 50 percent from the floor; and, again, Virginia hit its low point of the season thus far, trailing by as many as 23 points in a humiliating 69-50 loss, its fourth straight since posting a 5-2 record to open ACC play.
“This was a gut-check game, and the manner in which we lost was poor,” Bennett said. “You can’t lose your heart, and I thought that was taken again tonight.”
The Cavaliers’ offense wasn’t quite as putrid this time around – the Hoos shot a whopping 13.6 percent in the first half of last year’s effort, but did not dip below 35 percent in either half on Wednesday. The offensive effort, however, was just as difficult to watch; Virginia finished with a season-low 50 points on the night, and went several stretches where they struggled not only to score, but even to string together coherent possessions.
“I thought we were pretty stagnant,” Bennett said. “It’s a grind, and I wish we could get a few more transition baskets. We looked like we were stuck in mud out there.”
While Bennett said recently that his team is seeking a third scorer, the Hoos struggled to even find a first or second scorer Wednesday night. The Cavaliers’ traditional top two scorers struggled as Sylven Landesberg finished with a season-low four points while Mike Scott added 10. Sammy Zeglinski’s shooting woes continued, as he shot 2 of 7 from the floor; he has now hit just 8 of his last 38 field goals, including 2 of 16 from behind the 3-point line. The only silver lining that the Cavaliers could glean from their offensive output was the continued emergence of Jeff Jones , whose 13 points put him as the leading scorer for the second consecutive game.
Jeff Jones led all scorers for the second straight game, scoring 13 points against Florida State.
“The last few games he has scored some and has worked hard – that is why I have tried to give him some more minutes, to say, personnel-wise, can we find another scoring threat on the floor?” Bennett said. “I said, ‘We will take a look at Jeff and see.’ He hit a few early and got us going, and then he got some late at the end. He is a threat, at least to stretch the defense.”
With Virginia’s offensive struggles, it must be noted – as Bennett said at game’s end – that Florida State’s defense is one of the toughest in the ACC. The Seminoles are the only team that ranks in the top four in the conference in both scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense, and they showed why. From the 6’9″ Chris Singleton guarding Landesberg to the 7’1″ Solomon Alabi altering shots inside, FSU’s size frustrated the Hoos. The Noles also came up with seven steals, most of which led to fastbreak buckets – Florida State outscored Virginia 17-4 in transition, and converted 21 points on the Hoos’ 12 turnovers, two statistics that overlapped significantly.
“They made it hard – all the looks, if you got in the lane, they were contested,” Bennett said. “Hard to get inside touches and score inside, and against teams like that, you’re going to have to knock down some outside shots.”
“I think when things aren’t going well on offense, it gives the other team transition breaks, and leads them to quick offense, and our defense isn’t set,” captain Jerome Meyinsse said. “When our defense isn’t set, teams get easy buckets against us.”
The Seminoles’ offense is generally not as difficult to contend with; against the Hoos, however, Florida State made scoring look easy. With the exception of the first 9:20 of the first half – in which Florida State shot just 2 of 11 from the floor and had no free throw attempts – the Virginia defense was lacking, allowing 26-of-45 shooting thereafter. The poor defense began immediately after the strong opening defensive stretch, as Florida State scored back-to-back three-point plays in a span of 39 seconds – two of six three-point opportunities on the night – to take a 12-9 lead, which marked the last lead change of the night.
“I think when we get down, or adversity strikes, we aren’t able to muster enough to rally from it,” Bennett said. “That’s a concern. The mental toughness was lacking today. Fatigue maybe was there, but the mental toughness was not there. Take your pick tonight. It was tough.”
If it had not been for some hot shooting from Jones in the opening half, the game would have gotten out of hand by halftime. Back-to-back baseline 3’s from Jones on assists from Landesberg helped pull the Hoos within two points with 4:20 remaining. Even as Florida State continued to outplay Virginia, the Hoos kept the halftime margin to a manageable 33-24.
That surmountable halftime deficit was also similar to last year’s game with the Seminoles in Charlottesville, when the Hoos trailed just 30-16 at the break despite converting just 3 of 22 field goals.
Sylven Landesberg had difficulty scoring against FSU’s Chris Singleton. Landesberg finished with a season-low four points.
Like last year, however, the Hoos failed to respond in the second half. With Landesberg struggling, Bennett even benched him with 14:27 remaining in the second half and Virginia trailing by 16 points. The sophomore did not re-enter the contest until the 7:27 mark of the period with a 17-point margin.
“I said, ‘Let’s get some guys with some fresh legs and see if we can get the ball attacking a little more, moving,'” Bennett said. “He looked sluggish tonight, as did everybody. He goes against a set defense, and they make it hard for you to score. They do that to a lot of teams.”
As the Hoos drop to 5-6 in the conference with Wednesday’s result, another similarity to last year’s game was a disheartened Cavalier team. Calvin Baker, a senior and a captain for Virginia, said that the team would have a players-only meeting, where the Cavs would have an opportunity to clear their heads and “get everything out on the table.”
“Me personally, I just feel like, it’s toward the end of the season, people’s bodies are starting to get tired, so I’m going to tell [the other players at the meeting] that they need to take care of their bodies,” Baker said. “I know there’s a lot of frustration – like, if you’re not playing as much as you want, or you’re not making shots like you were at the beginning of the year. I just know it can be frustrating. So I’m going to try and get everybody just to clear their heads.”
And, like last season, the road does not get any easier. After losing to Florida State at home in 2009, Virginia went on the road to Duke, falling by a 25-point margin. This season, the Cavaliers have the tall task of looking to snap a four-game losing streak at Clemson, where the Tigers are 5-1 at Littlejohn Coliseum.
But, as Bennett has preached in each of Virginia’s last two losses, it is not the tally in the loss column that matters to him so much as the way in which it occurred. Poor effort and lackadaisical execution were the main reasons why Virginia was so outclassed by the Seminoles at home each of the last two seasons.
The question for the Cavaliers is whether, unlike last season, they will heed the words of their new head coach.
“We looked like a physically and mentally tired team out there, but I feel like you’ve got to be able to battle,” Bennett said. “We have to be better than we showed. We’ll talk to the staff, and see – we’ve got a couple more games coming up on the road. They call these the dog days of the season, and this is where we’ve got to fight.”
“We just have to stay together,” Meyinsse said. “Through these rough times, it’s easy for a team to fall apart. We have to make sure everyone stays together, try to fix the problems that we have, and we have to go in and fight on Saturday.”