Tony Bennett’s team couldn’t keep up with Duke in a 67-49 loss on Sunday.
After the Hoos knocked off N.C. State at home on Feb. 3 to move to 5-2 in conference play and 14-6 overall, they stood in a tie for first place in the ACC with Duke for a 24-hour period.
It has been three-and-a-half interminably long weeks for UVa fans since.
Though the Hoos matched up with the same Blue Devils without Sylven Landesberg on Sunday night, Duke’s superior roster was quickly apparent. It took just 8:34 of regulation for the No. 5 Blue Devils to open up a 16-point advantage that would grow as large as 27, and the season-high crowd of 13,663 sat quietly as the Hoos dropped their seventh contest in a row to Duke 67-49, ending a trying February for the program.
“That’s the disappointing part [of the losing streak] – we got off to a good start, and we played some teams at home, we were playing better,” Bennett said. “Now that it has slipped, that’s the hard thing. I didn’t think we were in Duke’s caliber – that’s the program you aspire to be like eventually, to have that kind of program. That’s the measuring stick, and obviously we didn’t measure up.”
Landesberg could only watch idly as Virginia finished with 50 points or fewer for the third time in four games, as he suffered a thigh injury against Miami that put him out of Sunday night’s action. Bennett said that Landesberg had not practiced since he was kneed in the thigh on Tuesday, and that in warm-ups it was apparent that the injury had not yet healed. When asked if Landesberg’s injury would extend beyond this week, Bennett said, “Boy I hope not – I don’t know.”
Sylven Landesberg sat out the Duke game with a thigh bruise suffered against Miami.
“Before the game, he really wanted to play,” Bennett said. “We put him in the back gym, and we watched him – he was like, ‘Ah, I want to try,’ but he couldn’t even move. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you one chance, give me a full-blast lay-up, let me see what you can do.’ You could have been faster than him. He labored, he couldn’t.
“I’m trying to think long-term. I don’t want him to irritate and aggravate that. Hopefully Wednesday, he’ll be better and able to play.”
In addition, second-leading scorer Mike Scott was all but absent for Virginia as well. The power forward was held scoreless for the second straight game, missing all six of his field goal attempts – mostly shots fading away from the basket – and secured just one rebound.
With Scott struggling to contribute to the Hoos, Bennett benched the junior for all but three minutes in the second half. Scott played just 12 minutes on the night, the fewest he has played since the 2007-08 season.
Scott “got some good looks, he just wasn’t himself the last couple games,” Bennett said. “Against a team like Duke, you’ve just got to be so locked in. The entire game, he just didn’t look like himself. It’s my decision to just say, you know what, Jerome [Meyinsse] is battling his guts out there, and so is Assane [Sene], so that’s why I went with it.”
“I just can’t buy a basket,” Scott said. “It’s like there’s a lid under there or something. I don’t know what it is.”
With both Landesberg and Scott non-factors, a reasonable conclusion would be that the Hoos would struggle to create offense without the production of their two best players – but, that certainly wasn’t the case in the early going, as the Cavaliers secured numerous open jumpers. Virginia, though, managed to shoot just 1 of 12 to start the game, as even several wide-open jumpers clanged off the rim.
“I think there were probably a couple quick ones, where I said our shots are really pressured, but honestly there were some pretty good looks,” Bennett said. “When you’re not making shots, you’ve got your top scorer out, that becomes a problem, and that was the case.”
And so, it’s hard to say which was more discouraging from the perspective of a Virginia fan as Duke quickly built a 20-4 advantage in the first half – that the Cavaliers were shooting 8 percent, or that most of the looks they missed were in fact very makeable. Of course, it’s not as if Virginia has proven it can make open shots – the Hoos have now shot 34.7 percent from the floor in their last eight losses, after shooting 43.8 percent in their first seven conference games.
From those opening moments on, with a few exceptions, this game looked much like the previous four – one team competed, and Virginia did not. Duke went into the half with a 14-point lead despite missing some open shots of its own en route to 42.5 percent first-half shooting. The Devils shot 54.5 percent in the second half, however, as the Cavaliers continued to be plagued by poor defense all around – both individually and in their rotations.
Jerome Meyinsse scored a career-high 21 points against the Blue Devils.
The major bright spot the Cavaliers was senior Jerome Meyinsse , who continues to fight despite being one of two seniors on a sinking squad. Meyinsse was the only consistent contributor offensively against the Blue Devils, scoring a career-high 21 points on 6-of-8 shooting while hitting 8 of 9 free throws; he also pulled down 7 rebounds. Meyinsse’s contributions included some of the only crowd-pleasing moments of the game – two dunks, and a swat of Lance Thomas early in the first half. Meyinsse received an ovation from the home crowd when he made his final exit from the game with 2:57 remaining – though roughly half the fans, by that point, had already made exits of their own.
“I just try to lead by example,” Meyinsse said. “Work hard in practice, and work hard in the games every day, and just try to show everyone that the hard work will pay off.”
Even Sene, who has had the starting center job taken by Meyinsse this season, can’t help but look up to the senior captain.
“I’m really proud of Jerome,” Sene said. “A lot of people are telling me, ‘He got your spot as a starter.’ But, Rome is a big mentor for me. He’s been talking to me, making me tough in the post when we’re in practice and stuff. If I see him doing all this that he’s been doing, especially this season, I just have to be happy about it, and pray for him to get better and what he wants in his life.”
The Cavaliers also got a nice lift from Sene, who fought hard most of the night as well – he pulled down 10 rebounds, his most in conference play. Jontel Evans also scrapped for the Cavaliers defensively; after playing just three minutes in the Hoos’ loss to Miami, he played 24 minutes against Duke and secured three steals, including an impressive strip of John Scheyer that led to Evans’ only field goal.
“Those guys, like Assane, and Jerome, and Jontel, they really battled, they laid it out.” Bennett said. “I liked their effort. If I had to try and find something positive about that, I would say it was those three.”
The story of the night, however, was more poor shooting from the Cavs’ usual cast of inconsistent jump shooters. Sammy Zeglinski, Jeff Jones , Calvin Baker, and Mustapha Farrakhan combined to shoot just 5 of 25 on the night, despite getting many open looks at the basket. Jones’ poor shooting was perhaps the most surprising – he took just three shots and missed all of them, after he had scored in double figures in three of Virginia’s last four games.
“I thought, ‘Boy, this could be an opportunity for [Jones] to step up and get something,” Bennett said. “He didn’t get many good looks, and that happens, it was just a tough night. Besides Jerome, nobody was lighting it up really.”
Bennett added: “I joked, ‘We’re not such an offensive juggernaut, it shouldn’t be a problem [without the production of Landesberg and Scott], we can manufacture points.’ I knew it was going to be challenging.”
Indeed, with Virginia’s two most talented players not contributing Sunday night, a loss to Duke was practically a foregone conclusion. And even with Landesberg and Scott contributing, Virginia has its “limitations,” as Bennett likes to say.
Sene had perhaps the best evaluation of the Hoos’ mindset as they head into their final two games before the ACC Tournament next week.
“We are not talented like other teams, but we’ve just got to keep playing hard every time on the court,” Sene said. “Like, without Sylven [Sunday], we’ve just got to keep playing hard.”