The Virginia basketball team arrived late, but exited early.
Following a week-long quarantine after a positive COVID-19 test within the program, UVA did not leave for Indianapolis until Friday. The Cavaliers made it through the two-test protocols, including one near 1 a.m. early Saturday morning, in order to play in the NCAA Tournament, but their stay ended up being a short one. Ohio found just enough offense during a key stretch in the second half and dispatched Virginia, 62-58, on Saturday night.
The Hoos finished the season at 18-7 as the ACC Regular Season Champions. They made their seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I said we wanted an opportunity,” Cavalier coach Tony Bennett said. “We were grateful to the NCAA for giving us that. … I think the old guys that put as much as they could into this program, I said, You’ll remember your ACC Regular Season Championship. That’s a big deal. You’ll also remember getting beat in this tournament. But nothing to hang your head about. You come to these games, that’s what makes this the survive-and-advance mentality, loser go home. That’s the reality of this. I faced such joy in this tournament on so many occasions. I’ve faced the heartache, too. Again, as I say, you always have to be willing to accept them both, know that when your career is done this doesn’t define you, whether you win it all or you lose or anything. It’s what you do, you do it with love, joy and passion, then you don’t let it define you beyond what it should.”
With the win or go home tournament format, UVA suffered through a tough shooting night and could not overcome it in other ways. The Hoos shot a season-low 35% (21 of 60) from the field. That included a rough 25.8% night (8-31) from 3-point range as two of their three frontcourt marksmen. Seniors Sam Hauser and Jay Huff combined for 2-14 shooting from behind the arc (14.3%) and 8-27 shooting overall (29.6%). Trey Murphy III, the third piece of the shooting puzzle, made 4-8 3’s (50%) and 4-9 overall (44.4%).
In fact, Murphy, Casey Morsell (3-5, 60%), and Reece Beekman (3-7, 42.9%) were the only players to shoot 42% or better overall. Kihei Clark went 3-10, while Tomas Woldetensae missed 2 shots in 4 minutes. Hauser hit 4 of 16 shots overall and 1 of 8 3’s, while Huff made 4 of 11 shots and 1 of 6 3’s.
“I thought, boy, early in the game we were settling a little bit. We were shooting a little quick,” Bennett said. “Then I thought in the second half we ran pretty good offense and got the kind of looks, the rhythm open looks, or in the lane the shots we wanted. We really had trouble capitalizing on them. I take, again, the quality of the looks. I think going cold in that setting hurt. … But I think that ability – comes down to banging a big shot here or there or getting a rhythm. As far as from a shooting standpoint, looked like we didn’t knock down the shots we usually make. Again, they did a good job guarding us. They were quality looks from my standpoint.”
Hauser led Virginia with 15 points and 9 rebounds thanks to a 6-6 night at the free throw line. Murphy posted 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals. Clark had 9 points and 3 assists with 0 turnovers. Huff had 9 points and 4 blocked shots, but played only 24 minutes with foul trouble. Morsell had 7 points and 3 rebounds. Beekman had 6 points, 3 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal. The Hoos had just 18 points in the paint. There was a stretch in the second half where they went without a made basket for 10:09 and the only points in that time came from a pair of Hauser free throws.
“It’s just one of those things where the shots just weren’t falling,” Hauser said. “I don’t think it was tired legs at all. I think it’s one of those games that it happens. It happens to everyone. That’s why your defense has to be real good. I thought our defense was pretty good up until they made that run in the second half. But you can’t make any excuse for not being able to make shots. You have to find other ways to score. Tonight we just left some baskets out there that we should have made.”
The Cavaliers needed other things to overcome the shooting woes, but didn’t get them consistently enough. Ohio outrebounded Virginia, 38-29. The Bobcats also made 13 of 14 free throws, including 6-6 in the final minute with the Wahoos fouling to try to pull off a miracle comeback.
Ohio’s offense didn’t light up the nets either. The Bobcats shot 42% (21-50) overall and 30.4% (7-23) from 3-point range. Ben Vander Plas led the way with 17 points (7-15/3-9 from 3-point range), 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Ben Roderick added 15 points (5-12/3-8 from 3-point range). Jason Preston recorded a near triple-double with 11 points (4-7/1-3 from 3-point range), 13 rebounds, and 8 assists. Lunden McDay had 8 points (2-9/0-3 from 3-point range) and Dwight Wilson chipped in 7 points (2-6).
While the numbers weren’t overwhelming, the UVA defense had some untimely breakdowns. After taking a 38-31 lead early in the second half, the Cavaliers suddenly found themselves trailing after the aforementioned drought grew. Ohio took the lead on a pair of Vander Plas 3-pointers where he got free for open looks. Those two shots were part of a critical 10-0 run for the lower seed.
Virginia clawed back to 49-47 with 2:59 to go, but Wilson broke free for a wide open dunk following an Ohio timeout on a pick-and-roll play that looked a lot like consistent breakdowns throughout this season. UVA responded with an offensive rebound putback by Huff, but another missed assignment defensively saw Roderick slice along the baseline for a layup. On a night where the offense struggled, those key moments were costly. The Bobcats scored 31 points in the final 10 minutes.
“I think we’ve been trying to make that our mentality,” Hauser said. “Defense travels no matter what, even if your offense isn’t there. I thought we played a pretty solid defensive game up until the last couple minutes where we had a couple big breakdowns. They got a couple of layups at the rim. Other than that, I thought we played hard on defense. They made some tough shots. They made crucial plays at the right time.
“I thought we were sharp defensively, for the limited prep and all that stuff,” Bennett said. “Again, I said it, it’s what we tried to do all year. I’m glad it was there. I thought we fought. Even good stretches in the second half, real good stretches defensively. It will come down to that. You’re going to have to make some plays offensively. I sensed the looks were there. You could just see we couldn’t get them to drop. It did put a lot of pressure on our defense. That’s what stung, a couple of those breakdowns at key times defensively, otherwise a pretty solid defensive effort. Again, credit to them.”
The last-ditch effort to salvage a win ultimately came up short – the Wahoos trailed by 7 entering the final minute and got it down to two points, but the Bobcats sealed it at the line. That brought down the curtains on a strange season that was delayed due to the ongoing pandemic and featured up-and-down scheduling as teams managed pauses as different times. The Cavaliers had a pause of their own in December and a quickly scheduled replacement game with Gonzaga turned into a rout. They experienced the opposite end of that spectrum a few weeks later when they rolled past Clemson as the Tigers returned from a break.
Virginia hung in the ACC race throughout until a three-game losing streak in February saw a slip in the standings. On the final day of the regular season, however, Florida State fell to Notre Dame and UVA claimed the ACC Regular Season Championship with a win at Louisville. Days later at the ACC Tournament, the Hoos won on a buzzer-beater against Syracuse but then had to bow out the next day with a positive COVID-19 test. The week of quarantine followed and an odd trip to the NCAA Tournament that featured limited practice and late travel closed the campaign with Saturday’s loss.
Bennett said it’s hard to evaluate the whole year that was so unique. The ACC Regular Season Championship and the early exit are both part of that story.
“You know there will be probably better times to speak clearer to them about what they meant and who they are as men and as players,” Bennett said. “After the game, not a lot is heard. It’s just trying to encourage them and thank them and tell them that they’ll always be a part of this. Again, they’ll have an ACC Regular Season Championship, and they got a chance to play in the tournament. That will sting how it ended, but that was the extent of it. I said I wish I had some magic words to make the sting go away, but I don’t. Time heals all things. ”