Akil Mitchell led the Cavaliers with 19 points.
With tournament play arriving around the country, many teams – including NC State – have warm-up apparel that reads ‘Rise To The Occasion.’ If the ACC Tournament is the occasion, Virginia hasn’t risen to the task for nearly two decades. Seeking its first conference tournament semifinal appearance since 1995, the fourth-seeded Hoos struggled offensively and the defense wasn’t good enough to keep it close as the fifth-seeded Wolfpack rolled to a 75-56 victory Friday in Greensboro.
The 19-point loss marked the largest margin of defeat this season for the Cavaliers. They are now 2-14 in this event against NCSU. Virginia has the longest semifinal drought of any conference team.
“We struggled in the ﬁrst round, we played NC State last year and last year we had a couple guys banged up and there is no excuse. We have struggled to ﬁnd our way in here, but I have faith in our team and hopefully we’ve got some basketball left,” Cav forward Akil Mitchell said.
“Our effort was good. It was, but our execution [wasn’t.] Effort without execution or soundness doesn’t get you a whole lot,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “These guys are a group and I sound like a broken record but you certainly can win with ’em and you can lose with them, and you know they’re going to ﬁght for the next practice and they’re about the right stuff.”
As has been the case with most of UVa’s games away from Charlottesville this season, the Wahoos (21-11) did not put together the type of performance needed to win. In addition to a 9-of-15 showing at the free throw line, they shot a miserable 25.0% from 3-point range and 38.9% overall as only Mitchell consistently found any touch on offense. Mitchell hit 7 of 11 shots (63.6%), while the rest of the team combined to go 14 of 43 (32.6%). The junior forward finished with 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocked shots in 33 minutes.
Unfortunately, Mitchell didn’t get enough help. Joe Harris , a first-team All-ACC selection by the media, made 4 of 13 shots including 2 of 9 3-pointers. He posted 13 points, 3 assists, and 5 turnovers. Jontel Evans had a strong game passing with 7 assists and 0 turnovers, but he made just 1 of 4 attempts for 3 points. Paul Jesperson hit 1 of 5 shots for 3 points.
The freshmen, meanwhile, struggled as well. Justin Anderson and Mike Tobey each started the game, but combined for 9 points. Anderson went 1-of-5 shooting for 3 points, while Tobey hit 3 of 9 for 6 points. Evan Nolte hit 2 of 3 shots for 5 points, but he had several miscues defensively. Taylor Barnette picked up 9 minutes (0 points) and Teven Jones played just 2 (2 points).
“I thought they did a good job of overplaying, they made shots tough and contested and had a hand in the face,” Harris said.
“They probably keyed in on Joe, guarded him better than we guarded Scott Wood, but as I said, if he earns them and they’re tough shots we live with ’em, but it’s when we lose vision or relax and he gets a clean look those are the breakdowns that you can’t have and it was a combination of both. He had it going. … Joe got good looks, he was off today that happens. And we always say don’t let your shot affect the rest of your game and you try to be as sound as possible in other areas and impact the game,” Bennett said.
Those issues offensively eventually carried over to the defensive end too. The Cavaliers allowed 45.8% shooting, 8 made 3-pointers, and 10 offensive rebounds. The stingy Pack Line Defense usually eliminates some if not all of those things, but Virginia struggled with isolation post-ups, screen-and-pop dribble drives, and off-ball screening action for Wood.
Joe Harris couldn’t find the touch from 3-point range while Scott Wood made 7 triples for NCSU.
The last thing on that list really broke the game open in the second half. Still within striking distance as the half started at 30-21, Wood sank triples on three straight possessions to put Virginia in a deep hole at 41-25. He hit the first 3-pointer off a double screen at the top of the key, the second on the right wing two steps behind the line, and the third in the right corner. At that stage of the game, Wood had hit 5 of 8 treys and he finished 7-of-12 shooting from downtown for 23 points. He also became the program’s top dog for made 3-pointers in a career, passing Rodney Monroe.
Add in Leslie’s face-up game and Howell’s general activity – that duo combined for 23 points and 23 rebounds, including several back-breaking offensive rebound plays during the attempted comeback over the final 15 minutes. NCSU (24-9) won the board battle 39-28 thanks to that effort from the starting front line.
Lorenzo Brown, who played just 10 minutes in the Charlottesville meeting earlier this year, added 9 points and 6 assists with just 1 turnover. T.J. Warren had 18 points as well.
“Wood had a terriﬁc game against us; he wasn’t as hot [in Charlottesville] and they’re a different team with Lorenzo Brown. He makes them go. He played 10 minutes against us and rolled his ankle and that changes the complexion of the game when he’s on the ﬂoor. The play of Richard Howell and certainly C.J. Leslie on the glass,” Bennett said. “I think Brown makes all the difference and Wood with his shooting. He hit some special shots and as Joe said it was both, some we did a poor job on and some we were right there and he got it rollin’.”
The loss put a final dent in the Cavaliers’ NCAA Tournament projections. The Hoos’ hopes rest in the hands of the selection committee, who must weigh one of the most perplexing resumes among the bubble hopefuls. Virginia owns mediocre stats for RPI (likely to settle somewhere in the 60’s or 70’s by the end of the weekend) and strength of schedule (likely to be in the 130’s neighborhood by Sunday).
UVa played well against the top 100 in the RPI with wins over Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Wisconsin, and Tennessee but they stumbled frequently against teams outside of the top 100 with losses to Old Dominion, George Mason, and Delaware as the CAA headliners. Of course, the team has had injuries and illness shuffle things at different points in the season. Evans missed or was limited during many of the tough early losses, while Tobey and Darion Atkins sat out during stretches of conference play.
All in all, it is an interesting case for the committee to dissect.
“I felt like our team was focused on this game at hand. We all had ACC Tournament Title as our goal. Whatever happens, happens, you can’t worry about that and you have to get yourself ready to play,” Mitchell said.
“I don’t know, I think I told you before, said we’re the ‘Dos Equis’ bubble team, we’re the most interesting bubble team in the world, we gotta stay thirsty, right?” Bennett said. “We do have some quality wins, absolutely. Have some bad losses. Have the injuries. They’ll have to make those decisions. It is a unique situation and that’s where it’s at.”
Regardless of what the committee choose to do with that information, the Wahoos put together back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since 1991-92 and 1992-93. The team just wants a chance to add to that success in a postseason tournament at this point.