An afternoon tip in South Carolina did not change much from a late-night start in North Carolina for the Virginia men’s basketball team. On Wednesday night in Winston-Salem, the Cavaliers allowed a high shooting percentage in one half, committed too many turnovers, and missed tons of shots as Wake Forest won 55-52. On Saturday afternoon in the other Carolina, the outcome followed the same unfortunate formula as Clemson took down the Hoos, 59-44.
Whether that’s part of the development process for a team full of young contributors or the sign of more troubled waters ahead in ACC play remains to be seen, but after topping North Carolina in the league opener, it’s certainly not the week many fans envisioned for the Cavs (11-5, 1-2 ACC). Virginia, which has lost its last four trips to Littlejohn Coliseum, has dropped back-to-back games for the first time this season.
“They’re a good defensive team. Every year we’ve played them, it’s a grinder. It really is. They made it hard,” UVa coach Tony Bennett told the Virginia Sports Radio Network. “We got some careless turnovers. At times, we were a little better but they jammed the lane.”
The Tigers (9-6, 1-2) started to pull away in the second half with some hot shooting while the Wahoos faltered simultaneously on the other end. After leading 24-20 at the break, Clemson rattled off 35 points after intermission behind 10-of-13 shooting in the half. That’s a balmy 76.9% and comparable to Wake Forest’s first half Wednesday night when the Demon Deacons posted 52.0% shooting. CU finished at 51.5% in the contest, just the second time this season a team has cracked the 50% barrier (George Mason 54.5%).
Joe Harris led the way for UVa with 14 points.
Milton Jennings keyed the second-half surge for the Tigers as he knocked down a bevy of 3-point shots. Jennings made 5 of 8 3-pointers and 7 of 13 total shots on the day to finish with 21 points. He banked in two of those long-range attempts, but it was part of a strong afternoon for the forward. Jennings also added 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 blocked shot, and 1 steal in 37 minutes of action.
That outside firepower teamed up with center Devin Booker on the interior to give the Cavaliers trouble. Booker made just 3 of 10 shots, but got to the free throw line where he made 9 of 12 attempts. That gave Booker 15 points and 9 rebounds on the day. He had particularly good success against Virginia freshman Mike Tobey , who got outweighed 250 to 227 in that match-up. Clemson won the rebounding battle 29-23 thanks to the work of Booker and Jennings on the glass.
Booker also blocked a pair of shots at the rim, both in a key exchange early in the second half. UVa forced a turnover and pushed ahead for a rare transition opportunity at the 7:37 mark of the half. Jontel Evans hit Mike Tobey with a behind-the-back feed, but Booker blocked the shot. Justin Anderson came up with the offensive rebound but Booker blocked his in-close attempt too to keep the score at 41-35. On the other end, Jennings hit one of his triples to make it a 9-point game vs. a 4-point game during that span of events.
“It was physical. Then you have Jennings, the bank was open for him. He threw in a couple of banked threes,” Bennett said. “Booker was an issue for us and when we had to play our younger guys, it was hard and he could kind of fight for position. … He found his way.”
While the defense had its issues in the second half, the offensive struggles remained the storyline of the two road games. After shooting 36.4% at Wake Forest, including a 3-of-11 shooting night from 3-point range (27.3%), the Cavaliers mustered just 35.4% shooting at Clemson, including 5 of 17 (29.4%) from beyond the arc. Throw in 12 more turnovers (the team had 17 at Wake) and the offense looked ragged again. Even if the defense is pristine, it’s hard to win conference games with those types of statistics on the offensive end.
Joe Harris led the scoring attack for the 10th time this season with 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting as Clemson’s Rod Hall chased him around for much of the game. No other Cavalier reached double figures as UVa managed just 48 shots attempts and 8 free throw looks. Akil Mitchell had 7 points and 9 rebounds, while Mike Tobey added 6 points and 2 rebounds. Evan Nolte also had 6 points by making 2 of 3 triples.
“With that kind of physicality, you’ve got to score some buckets on the other end. I actually thought we got some good looks, but [Booker] was playing paddle ball with it on the glass. That’s where you maybe have to use a pump fake. It was a much more physical game and we have to learn from that and grow from that,” Bennett said.
Part of the problems offensively have stemmed from point guard production. Jontel Evans started his second straight game, but finished with 2 points, 3 assists, 1 rebound, and 5 turnovers in 33 minutes. Freshman Teven Jones had 2 points, 0 assists, and 0 turnovers in 10 minutes. Neither of those players could drive consistently to make plays against Clemson’s defense and that bogged down the shooting opportunities for Harris, Nolte, and Paul Jesperson .
Evans told the Virginia Sports Radio Network after the game that he has to pick up his play moving forward. The senior has played just 7 games this season and just 3 since an extended December layoff following a foot injury.
“Physically I’m good. I’ve just got to pick my level of play up. I can’t continue to play like this if we want to go far,” Evans said. “Cut down on the turnovers, attack when the defense gives me an opportunity and finish plays or get guys open for the shots they would like to shoot.”