Turnovers and subpar 3-point shooting have highlighted the University of Virginia men’s basketball team’s significant offensive struggles in 2019-20. Those issues proved costly on the road Wednesday night as the Cavaliers dropped a 54-50 decision to No. 9 Florida State.
A win in Tallahassee could have been a big boost to a young Virginia team, not to mention the Cavaliers’ NCAA Tournament hopes. The Cavaliers (11-5) will instead have to wonder what could have been, thanks in large part to ball security issues in the final minutes before halftime and in the final two minutes of the game.
“I really challenged our guys to be attack-oriented and aggressive offensively because of how good Florida State’s defensive pressure is and their ability to switch on-ball, off ball, overplay, so we tried to open up the court and get to the lane and play. I thought our guys had, for the most part, definitely the right mentality,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “Same thing defensively. They didn’t lay down. They fought. Now the next step is, and we keep preaching, you’ve got to season it with a little more discipline and a little more soundness.”
“We’ll take some of the positives and move on and keep trying to grow,” Bennett said. “Sure, our inexperience shows at times and it’s a lot, but they didn’t back up in terms of their effort and trying to stay in it where they could have. So, we’ll build on that.”
Battling back from a 7-point halftime deficit, Virginia scored eight consecutive points to grab a 47-44 lead with 3:11 remaining in the game. UVA and FSU were tied at 47 apiece entering the 2-minute mark, but the Cavaliers, who had taken much better care of the basketball following 11 first-half turnovers, turned the ball over three times in the final two minutes. Meanwhile, Florida State went turnover-free in that time and outscored the Hoos 10-3 to capture its 15th victory in 17 contests.
Florida State guard Anthony Polite drained one of his four 3-pointers to tie the game at 47. The Seminoles’ leading scorer, Devin Vassell, made another from beyond the arc with 14 seconds left to give the home team a 52-47 lead with 14 seconds remaining. Florida State was 8-of-22 from beyond the arc against Virginia, which made only 3-of-16. Junior Tomas Woldetensae was responsible for all three of the Cavaliers’ 3s, his final one coming with five seconds remaining to pull the Cavaliers within two. Vassell, who finished with 18 points, sank two free throws to seal the game.
The Cavaliers ended the game in a similar fashion to the way they ended the first half. Virginia rebounded from an early 9-point deficit to hold a 24-20 advantage entering the final five minutes of the first half. The Hoos closed in poor fashion, surrendering turnovers on six consecutive possessions while managing only two shot attempts in the final five minutes. Florida State took advantage, scoring 11 straight points while surging to a 31-24 halftime lead.
“I was discouraged about the way we ended the first half,” Bennett said. “The message was, ‘Look, I want you to be aggressive but let’s figure this out.’ You have to slow down a little bit at times, and you have to be sounder defensively without dropping your effort. It was a challenge to them – a hard challenge to some individuals and a challenge to them – and I thought they responded because they did come out and got a lead and fought, where at times you can crumble under that. I liked how they responded for the most part. We’ve got work to do. I get all that.”
Until the end, Virginia outplayed the Seminoles in the second half by a significant margin. Senior forward Mamadi Diakite led the comeback charge with 10 points and six rebounds as the Cavaliers outscored the Seminoles 23-13 to take the 47-44 lead. Woldetensae added nine second-half points, making all three of his 3-point attempts. Florida State shot 30.8% from the field in the final 20 minutes and turned the ball over eight times, though the Seminoles did not have a turnover after the 8:28 mark.
UVA had four turnovers in the first 18:04 of the second half. The Hoos totaled 18 turnovers on the night, their second-highest turnover total of the season (UVA had 19 in a loss to South Carolina). Florida State’s long and athletic defense, which averages 18 forced turnovers per game, is a reason, but UVA had its share of unforced errors. Clark accounted for nine, Diakite had three, and sophomore Kody Stattmann had two.
While Virginia struggled from beyond the arc – UVA is making 26.7% of its 3s this season and was 3-of-15 against FSU – the Hoos dominated the Seminoles in the paint, 30-14. Virginia made 46% of its field goals in the game while holding Florida State to 37% from the field. Florida State outrebounded Virginia, 31-29, and had 12 offensive boards, though those second chances resulted in only four points.
Diakite scored a team-high 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting, contributing six rebounds and two blocks as well. No other Cavalier reached double-digit points. Woldetensae and Braxton Key scored nine apiece while Clark had eight points on 4-of-12 shooting. Freshman Casey Morsell and junior Jay Huff each chipped in four points, and Huff led the Hoos in rebounds with seven. Vassell and Polite combined for 32 of Florida State’s 54 points. Three Seminoles had five points apiece, including Forrest, who was 3-of-4 from the free throw line. His two free throws gave Florida State a 49-47 lead they would not relinquish.
As was the case in last week’s road loss at Boston College and home defeat to Syracuse, UVA was in position late to come away with a win. For the third straight game the Cavaliers could not hang on to the lead. Virginia has lost three straight games for the first time since 2016-17 and is now 3-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference play after jumping out to a 3-0 start. The Hoos hit the road once again on Saturday when they take on Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
– Highlights, courtesy of Virginia Sports TV