Coach Tony Bennett’s team has lost five of its last six games.
To borrow senior forward Mike Scott’s signature catch phrase, Virginia’s 76-71 loss at Wake Forest was, in a word, tragic. The Hoos squandered a 10-point lead in the second half, and allowed the Demon Deacons their first ACC victory of the season. Wake spread the scoring around with six players in double figures, and Virginia was unable to stem the flow at the end of the game.
It’s been a tale of one step forward and two steps back for Virginia over the past seven days. After successfully slowing down Georgia Tech, the Cavalier defense faltered against Maryland and simply fell apart in Winston-Salem. Guard C.J. Harris quietly racked up 15 points by going a perfect 10-10 from the charity stripe. Six of his points came in the last two minutes as Virginia desperately tried to foul and retake the lead. During the final possession, UVa clanged three 3-pointers in quick succession, as the Hoos late-game rally fell short.
“I can think of when there is miscommunication in transition, not blocking off. At the end, we were giving them a straight line drive to the basket and letting a guy post us up. There were a few breakdowns, that really as the game gets tighter, you’ve got to make them earn,” Bennett said. “If they hit contested shots and earn them, great, but a couple breakdowns of not helping on screens cost us. That was discouraging because we work awfully hard at trying to be in position, especially at those times.”
In a turnaround from Thursday’s loss at home to Maryland, Virginia’s Assane Sene scored a career-high 15 points and tallied 13 rebounds, his first career double-double. The junior center was 6-10 from the floor and added a steal. Freshman Joe Harris also experienced a resurgence of sorts, scoring 14 points in addition to posting two assists and three rebounds. Harris and Sene were bright spots in what, thanks to the defensive issues, was an otherwise underwhelming performance from the Cavaliers.
Senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan scored 13 points, but was 5-13 shooting. Sophomore Jontel Evans was pressured and forced to hold the ball, and was unable to find an open man in his role as a distributor at times. Although the team was an improved 50.9% shooting from the field, the Hoos were only 7-14 in the free throw category, in comparison to Wake’s impressive 90.5% from the line.
Prior to Saturday’s game, Wake forest was a dismal 0-5 in conference play, and the Deacons were well on their way to becoming the first team in 24 seasons to go winless in the ACC. In a bizarre twist, the Deacons’ 7’0″ center Ty Walker also scored a career high on Saturday night, posting 11 points after only scoring eight total points in his entire ACC career. Like on Thursday, missed assignments and poor defensive positioning doomed the Cavaliers down the stretch.
“I felt like at times their penetration – they got to the lane,” Bennett said in The Washington Post. “A few times we stepped up and helped on the ball screen and he got some easy ones. Some were defensive breakdowns and some were us trying to help each other.”
Like Virginia, Wake Forest has been heavily relying on the contributions of freshmen players. For the Deacons, this win is something of a turning point, as their embattled first year head coach Jeff Bzdelik was feeling the heat from a basketball-passionate fanbase. Although the remainder of the season still looks grim, Wake escapes finishing the year with a goose-egg in conference play. This game marks the ninth-straight loss for Virginia in Winston-Salem.
At the midpoint of the ACC schedule, Virginia still has time to correct its play before tournament time.
“We’ve just got to learn from those mistakes,” Jontel Evans said in The Washington Post. “We keep saying that, but we’ve just got to keep learning.”