And ... this is why you can't trust Virginia in March
ORLANDO — Tony Bennett thought his team had it.
Unlike the pain and frustration of the historic UMBC upset 5 years earlier wherein Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, this time, the Cavaliers were in the driver’s seat. A 12-point lead in the second half was narrowed to a 2-score lead, but after Virginia appeared to have figured out Furman’s late 1-3-1 zone, a 4-point lead with 12 seconds left had Bennett thinking about advancing to the Round of 32 for the first time since his team cut down the nets in 2019.
And then, in 10 short seconds, we were reminded why this program is impossible to trust in March.
Two Furman free throws were followed by a possession that’ll go down in Virginia infamy. Kihei Clark, AKA the super senior who made the best pass in program history to fuel that aforementioned title, panicked after being double-teamed in the corner and heaved a pass to no one in particular.
One Furman 3-pointer, 1 vintage March Madness moment and 1 all-too-painful reminder of why this tournament continues to be unkind to Bennett’s squad.
“This game is ‘interesting’ is the word I’d use. You feel like ‘We got it, we got it,'” Bennett said. “And then all of the sudden, in a moment’s notice, it changes at the end. That’s tough. It is.”
ARE YOU SERIOUS?! 😨
FURMAN WITH THE STEAL AND 3 TO TAKE THE LEAD WITH 2.2 SECONDS REMAINING #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/fSCNKUzboq
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 16, 2023
It’s even tougher to think about it because of the opportunity Virginia had to put away Furman late. Instead, Bennett got out-coached by Furman’s Bob Richey. And not necessarily because Bennett didn’t call a timeout the second that Clark got trapped in the corner (Bennett said afterward that they should’ve called a timeout … which is ironic because Richey was actually calling for his team to foul “but the good Lord knew they couldn’t hear me, and they threw it to us.”). Richey out-coached Bennett because when that lead ballooned to double digits, he busted out a 1-3-1 zone in the latter part of the second half.
“It’s been keeping me up all week. I’ve talked to coaches all around the country, ‘how do you speed them up, how do you speed them up?'” Richey said. “I didn’t think we could press them because they handle the ball too well and they pass it, stay on two feet. They’re very disciplined.
“But I had this wild thought a couple days ago, this is a zone we hardly play, played 10, 15 possessions all year, but I thought it would stagnate it to where we don’t have to guard all the screening action. That’s what it ended up doing. They still did some things, but they weren’t getting them off their standard action.”
Virginia couldn’t get into its half-court sets, and the team with the slowest pace of any NCAA Tournament team — only 3 teams in America have a fewer possessions per 40 minutes — was indeed sped up.
Sure, it’s not necessarily an indictment of Bennett that he didn’t make the right in-game adjustment. But it does come back to Bennett that his team had such little margin for error. Again.
It’s not just, as Charles Barkley said, “they don’t intimidate you.” Virginia doesn’t put its foot on your throat. In an NCAA Tournament game, they didn’t make their first 3-pointer until their was just under 13 minutes to play. They only attempted 2 in the first half.
Meanwhile, Furman was able to work through a 1-for-7 start from deep and not necessarily fall victim to the pack-line defense. With 4 days to prepare, Richey talked about his team understanding how to play through the “the sludge of the game.”
It’s all sludge with Virginia. Richey respects that. He also showed he can beat that.
“I see why they win,” Richey said. “They make it really hard.”
(Furman leading scorer Jalen Slawson shook his head as Richey said that, but did so in agreement of his head coach.)
Counterpoint — I see why they lose in March. And they make it really hard to trust them.
It’s one thing to grind your way through close games. It’s another to be the team that seemingly has to keep the game low-scoring to feel like it’s in control. For all the right decisions that Clark made — he’s Virginia’s all-time leader in assists and made a beautiful pass for a bucket after knifing through the 1-3-1 late — the moments that stood out on that game were the missed free throw with 19 seconds left and the aforementioned panicked turnover.
This version of Virginia doesn’t have a handful of future pros like the 2018-19 squad did. They don’t possess a guy who can take over at a moment’s notice. Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner are UVA’s leading scorers and they average 12 points per game, apiece.
Point being, the margin for error is always slim. Too slim.
As a result, Virginia lost in the first round for the 3rd time in its past 4 NCAA Tournament appearances. Not ideal, especially when it wasn’t simply a matter of just a mid-major team catching fire. A Furman team with 1 NCAA Tournament victory in program history hung around and then pounced at the right time.
It’s all well and good to do the little things well. Nobody will ever question Virginia for that. The Cavaliers are first in America in assist-to-turnover ratio. They’re patient. They’re constantly screening. They make the back-door cuts. They block out. They don’t allow second-chance points.
These things, by any stretch, should be staples of all elite programs. But Thursday was another reminder of just why this will always be Virginia’s reality.
How does Bennett convey that another disappointing March loss like this isn’t simply a byproduct of the Virginia DNA?
“Just keep working. Guys had a terrific year this year being the co-champs of the ACC, got to the championship game of the conference tournament and felt like we had this,” Bennett said. “Last time we were in the tournament, we had the COVID deal and had the 1 key injury … I can make situations why it’s been tough, but we lost in the first round. That is what it is. But it doesn’t take away from what these guys have done, and what we’ve experienced over the years.
“But you wanted it when you felt like you had it.”