The Virginia men’s basketball team wanted to take a bite out of the Big Apple in the NIT Season Tip-Off event, but those dreams bit the dust Monday night with a lackluster showing against Delaware. The Blue Hens locked up the Hoos’ offense to win 59-53 and advance to Madison Square Garden in New York for the NIT Semifinals.
The Cavaliers, obviously, were disappointed in the outcome.
“It is a heartbreaker, we all really wanted to go. Obviously, we all know that we are better than Delaware. We can’t take it back,” UVa forward Darion Atkins said. “I should have played the first half like I did in the second. We all really wanted to go, and now we just need to come out and be ready for Saturday and play harder.”
“It’s a huge disappointment. We talked about how every basketball player wants to play in Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, we don’t get that chance, but we are preparing for Seattle,” Harris said.
For most of the night, the visiting Hens gave the Cavaliers a dose of their own defensive medicine. Playing a sagging man-to-man defense, Delaware plugged holes in the paint, crowded players near the basket, and challenged the hosts to win with jump shots. The Hoos couldn’t do that. They opened the game 0-11 on 3-pointers before finishing 4 of 21 from downtown.
That included the first half where the team went 0-9 from long range as part of a dismal offensive showing. Virginia shot just 22.2% (6 of 27) before intermission and posted just 2 assists against 9 turnovers during those first 20 minutes. As a result, UVa trailed 28-15 headed to the locker room.
Simply put, that kind of offense isn’t going to win many games even if your defense is superb. The Cavaliers tried to put the shaky start behind them at halftime.
Virginia’s Joe Harris poured in 20 points .
“I talked to our guys at halftime and I said ‘Forget about the score.’ I said ‘I know it’s hard, but we’ve got to get our mind off of it and just come out with some kind of purpose,'” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I know this sounds a little funny, but to almost be more patient or unselfish in a way. Make an extra pass or two and get after it and you’ll be surprised at what happens. I thought they did that and we got a pulse and then we battled and got some stops. Before you knew it, we took the lead and it was a one or two possession game.”
Indeed, the Hoos battled back after the horrible first half of offense. Trailing by 18 points at 35-17 with 17:00 to go, UVa rattled off a 25-6 run to take a 42-41 lead at the 7:58 mark. Harris and Atkins spear-headed the scoring spurt with 19 of those points. Harris hit a pair of 3-pointers off of the Cavs’ favorite box split look and added a lay-up as well. Atkins, meanwhile, appeared to energize the offense with a blend of lay-ups, short jumpers, and hustle buckets. Harris finished with 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 assist. Atkins added 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist.
“He was active, he was quick, he got on the offensive glass, and showed some touch,” Bennett said. “We need a guy like Darion that has some touch in there.”
Unfortunately, the surge didn’t last. Immediately after taking the one-point lead, Virginia faltered as Delaware ripped off an 8-0 burst to retake the lead.
“That really hurts. You feel like you have a lot of momentum, especially making a comeback like we did. Just to see them make a comeback of their own,” Harris said.
UVa sophomore Darion Atkins posted 11 points.
Still, the game was within one possession with approximately three minutes to go but UVa couldn’t come through. In fact, Virginia’s only turnovers of the second half popped up at the worst possible time. With the score in the Hens’ favor at 53-50, Justin Anderson (2 points, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 rebound, 1 block) committed two turnovers at 2:43 and 1:45, the latter of the two coming on what looked to be a potential lay-up from a designed driving opportunity.
Then out of a timeout at the 1:14 mark, the Cavaliers committed a shot clock violation when trailing 54-50. On that sequence, Bennett said it was “poor execution on a set” and that led to Harris trying to drive the baseline. When the Blue Hens covered that up, the kickout pass didn’t create a shot and the Hoos couldn’t make anything happen before the buzzer as Akil Mitchell (15 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block) could not get a desperation attempt to the rim from outside.
“Those turnovers, they just kill you. Especially, when you play a late game like that,” Harris said. “There were a lot of mistakes throughout the course of the game. Even if we did come out on top, we wouldn’t deserve the win. We didn’t play well enough.”
Virginia will try play well enough in its next opportunity. Seattle comes to town on Saturday for a 4 p.m. tilt.
Note: Point guard Jontel Evans returned to the line-up against Delaware, but played just 3 minutes in a reserve role.