The Virginia basketball team has struggled to put the ball in the basket at times this season. While that issue improved slightly Sunday, the Cavaliers let two other critical areas slip and it cost them dearly in a 70-59 loss to South Carolina at the John Paul Jones Arena.
The defeat snapped a 22-game non-conference winning streak at home and the causes were easy to find. The Hoos (9-2) committed 19 turnovers, their most in more than four years, and allowed 55.1% shooting, a number similar to losses against Duke (57.8%) and Florida State (56.5%) late last season.
“They pressured us into turnovers and they shot the ball well,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I thought early we weren’t contesting their shots at the level that we needed to. I can always live with tough shots that are made if you’re bothering the shot but it’s almost like it surprised us and then I thought there were stretches where we battled and fought and made it more difficult for them to score but that’s when, you know, a careless turnover happened or we gave up a transition bucket, an offensive rebound and that was just too much and I think at times we beat ourselves. And again, they played well and we had stretches of solid basketball but not enough and, you know, when you look at the stat sheet, a lot of it … was 16 fastbreak points and 19 turnovers. You’re not going to win against a quality opponent doing that.”
UVA fell behind early as the Gamecocks built an 8-point lead in the first 4:01 and led by double digits or close to it for a 15-minute stretch that bridged the halves. The Cavaliers’ issues in the game showed up in those early minutes. They allowed South Carolina to make 5 of its first 6 shots and that one miss was followed up by an offensive rebound and bucket. The visitors went on to shoot 56% (14-25) in the first half with Jair Bolden leading the way there. He had 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting before intermission and finished with 22 points to lead his team.
The Hoos, meanwhile, struggled to even get shots to the basket in the first half. They committed 12 turnovers before halftime, while only taking 17 shots. That number eventually ballooned to 19 turnovers by game’s end, the most for UVA in a game since Dec. 8, 2015 against West Virginia. Virginia actually won that game 70-54 at Madison Square Garden.
The hosts weren’t as fortunate this time.
“We take a lot of pride in how we defend and going into the year I thought this team had the chance to be one of the better defensive teams I have coached,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “We are long, big strong dudes which, when you are long like that in the perimeter it gives you a chance. Now we have [Keyshawn] Bryant back in there which gives us a high- IQ athlete that makes our defense even better with his athleticism and length. Just like Tony, we each spend a lot of time on defending. We defend differently but we are trying to keep the ball out of the paint and so is he.”
Virginia’s Kihei Clark lost 7 turnovers, including 4 in the first half. He finished with 9 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1 steal as well. With 13 turnovers in the last two games, however, the balanced stat line is weighed down heavily by the miscues.
Bennett said that the sophomore point guard is carrying a heavy load for the Cavaliers. With no true back-up at his position and limited playmaking coming from other ballhandlers, that’s certainly part of where the offense’s struggles have shown up early this season. Still, Bennett said, that the high number of turnovers the past two games isn’t something that is sustainable.
“We’re asking a lot of him and he’s using his quickness at times,” Bennett said. “I think Kihei’s an excellent penetrator and gets in there, but sometimes when he gets in traffic because he’s not the biggest, he’s gotta probably give it up a little sooner at times. He’s a warrior, he’s done so much for us, but I did challenge him in the locker room after. Certain turnovers happen, especially against that kind of ball pressure and over play, but some have to be eliminated. … I guess sometimes I forget he’s in a brand new role for him and he still is in his second year, but I think he needs to clean those up for us to be as good as we can.”
“I’m asking an awfully lot of him because he has to do a lot defensively and offensively, but I’m going to hold him into high account,” Bennett continued. “I hold all my point guards into that. Sometimes over-penetrating, getting in traffic, trying to do too much … but there’s also that feeling of I’ve got to get something, we’ve got to get a bucket or make something happen that you sort of walk that fine line and it can cost you against these teams.”
The Cavaliers made a run at a comeback in the second half despite their turnover issues and defensive breakdowns. A 16-3 surge saw the hosts turn a 42-29 deficit into a 45-45 stalemate over a span of 4:33. That run started with 4 points from Mamadi Diakite as he produced 21 points to lead the Hoos. He added 5 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, and 2 steals.
Casey Morsell scored all 6 of his points in that run with an old-fashioned 3-point play and a corner 3-pointer, while a Clark triple, Diakite dunk, and a Braxton Key free throw tied the score. Key ended up with 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots, and 2 steals in 28 minutes as he returned to heavy minutes with a cast on his wrist.
Just as quickly as that rally materialized, however, it faded. South Carolina responded with a layup when Virginia gave up a baseline drive, a Bryant dunk off of one of UVA’s turnovers, and a A.J. Lawson free throw. That flurry prevented the Hoos from ever taking the lead and their final push was met with another Gamecock response. The visitors scored on 8 of 9 possessions after the hosts cut the lead back to 51-50.
South Carolina placed four players in double figures. Bolden’s 22 led the way, while Lawson added 14 more. Justin Minaya had 12 points and Bryant chipped in 10 as well.
“We had to fight to get back into it,” Bennett said. “There were turnovers, and fastbreak points, and rebounds in that stretch that were just too much, and some unnecessary fouls that put them at the line. So again, that’s part of us trying to be in that spot again and be a little tighter, a little surer, and a little sounder and all those areas but those were very costly and that was frustrating because that’s for the most part in our control and that’s the hard stuff.”
UVA will try to get back on track next weekend when Navy visits the JPJ. That game is scheduled for Sunday at 4 p.m.