Just when it looked like the Virginia basketball team might have finally found its footing with a road win at Georgia Tech on Saturday, the Hoos stumbled again in a 53-51 home loss to NC State on Monday. They’ve lost four of their last five games and dropped two consecutive contests at the John Paul Jones Arena for the first time since 2017.
For a program unaccustomed to losing in recent times, the recent struggles have tested the ability to stay the course and keep working on improvement.
“Confidence is something that you have to earn,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. ”I thought they did a good job against Georgia Tech to hold on and to win. It challenges you. That’s our job as coaches. It’s just to stay together and keep working and not be distracted. This league is who is ready and right has a chance to win, and we know our margin for error is smaller than it has usually been. What else can you say? It’s kind of the same message: keep your head up and let’s keep working. I think they’ll take a lead from us with how we work and how we respond to them. It’s a tremendous opportunity to lead, coach, teach and try to improve. I think we’re improving in little ways, but it’s not showing in the win-loss column. It did against Georgia Tech.”
Each of Virginia’s ACC setbacks of late have followed the same script. Fall behind, trail at halftime (the Hoos are 0-6 when trailing at half this year), mount a comeback to take the lead, and falter late with chances to win. That’s held true in each of the four conference losses this month. UVA has led in the final four minutes of each.
The pattern held true Monday. The Cavaliers see-sawed with the Wolfpack for much of the first half, but they hit the locker room down 28-26. NC State opened the second half by making three of its five made 3-pointers in the first 6:10 and ballooned the lead to 42-31 as a result. That margin grew, in part, while the hosts failed to score for 6:37 of game time.
Francisco Caffaro, seeing extended action after four ‘did not play’ lines in the last six games, snapped the drought with a layup. That triggered a Virginia outburst that reached 15-0 while NCSU struggled through a 10:13 scoreless drought of its own. The 15-0 run was UVA’s largest of the season and it produced a 46-42 lead.
Still, the stretch run remained and the Wahoos couldn’t climb into victory lane in the final four minutes. The Wolfpack ended their long dry spell with a Jericole Hellems 3-pointer at the 3:38 mark that cut Virginia’s edge to one point. After a Mamadi Diakite free throw, State struck again from behind the arc. This time, Markell Johnson delivered the blow and the Pack closed things out with an 11-5 surge to win. That snapped UVA’s eight-game winning streak in the series.
“I’m certainly proud of my team,” NCSU coach Kevin Keatts said. “This is our second game in a row where I thought our guys stepped up and won the game on the defensive end. We knew coming in that this is a tough place to play and Virginia is a tough program to play against because they are so good on the defensive end. I told the guys before the game, if we are going to win the game it is going to be because we defend them and I knew the score would be low. I thought guys did a tremendous job.”
Virginia almost pulled the game out of the fire thanks to some missed free throws by NC State. The visitors missed three shots from the stripe in the final 25 seconds and that left a crack in the door for the Cavaliers. Johnson and C.J. Bryce, who each made jumpers in the final three minutes during State’s closing surge, missed the front end of one-and-one opportunities. The final miss by Devon Daniels, who split two shots at the line, bounced off the rim with 7.2 seconds to go. Bryce had 13 points, while Johnson and Daniels added 7 each. DJ Funderburk, who fouled out, led his team with 14 points, while Hellems had 7 points as well.
Casey Morsell grabbed the rebound on Daniels’ miss. He raced the dribble up court and ended up taking a 3-point attempt against a double team that came up well short. UVA was out of timeouts.
Morsell knew time was tight and when he couldn’t find a teammate open initially, he said, he just tried to make a play.
“I was trying to get it to Kihei [Clark] quick,” Morsell said. “I didn’t see him quick enough and then I realized that time was running down so I couldn’t look to pass. There wasn’t that much time to make a play. I kind of tried to get downhill but they built a fence, which forced me to go opposite wing and time was ticking so I had to let it go.”
That brought another ACC game to a disappointing end for the Hoos, but they continue to try to focus on areas of improvement and finding positives while operating with patience. In this game, despite Morsell’s missed attempt to win the game, he had his best offensive showing since the Navy game back on Dec. 29. Morsell finished with 9 points on 4-of-9 shooting as well as 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 blocked shot. Caffaro’s 10-minute cameo led to 6 points as well.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, that duo chipping in some points didn’t coincide with others having big scoring days. Clark led the Hoos with 10 points, but that came on 3-9 shooting. He had 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 turnovers too. Diakite, Jay Huff, and Braxton Key added 8 points apiece. Diakite made 2 of 5 shots and added 7 rebounds with 3 blocked shots to his line. Those blocks moved him into third all-time at UVA. Huff made 3 of 6 shots to go with 4 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Key, who appeared to tweak something with his right leg or foot early in the game, hit 3 of 11 shots and ended up with 8 rebounds on the stat sheet too.
The Hoos shot 36% (18 of 50) overall and just 25% (3 of 12) from 3-point range. UVA did make 80% of its free throws (12 of 15), but the shooting inconsistency, especially from 3-point range, continues to be a storyline. The margin for error in other areas simply isn’t there due to those struggles. As a result, a fast start like NC State had in the second half, can be just enough to tilt the scales to the losing side for Virginia.
“It’s hard. As I said, that’s where your margin of error shrinks when you look at our shooting percentages,” Bennett said. “You’ve got to be so right in all those other areas. … It makes it hard, but you look at it and keep trying to find ways. … Every game we’ve lost in ACC play, we could have won. We’ve had chances. So you’re close, maybe it’s not as close as it feels like, but you’re close. I’m trying to be hopeful that we’re going to stick a few of those but we’ll keep plugging.”