Although the Virginia men's basketball team often has sputtered offensively this season, its strong defense has remained a staple. During Saturday's 63-44 loss to Boston College at John Paul Jones Arena, however, it finally started to crack.
"We certainly struggled offensively, and we've had games like this before where we haven't been able to hit the shots," coach Tony Bennett said. "But this was one of the first games where I felt like we really got outplayed defensively."
Sixty-three points might not seem a staggering total to surrender, but the Cavaliers (14-14, 5-9 ACC) depend on their defense to compensate for a low-scoring offense. Virginia is last in the conference in points scored per game, but it entered the game tied for first in scoring defense.
"That's our only chance is the defense," sophomore guard Jontel Evans said. "We don't have any guys on the team that are going to get 30 a night. We have a team. And when it's not working on the defensive end, our chances are limited."
Virginia began the game with a typically strong defensive effort and jumped out to a 7-0 lead. Junior center Assane Sene dominated the paint and scored six points in six minutes. Senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan hit back-to-back threes and junior guard Sammy Zeglinski added another as the Cavaliers grabbed a 28-21 advantage. With two minutes left in the half, however, the Eagles (17-11, 7-7 ACC) began to take control. Boston College ended the half on a 10-0 run, and the Cavaliers never regained their composure.
"It just seemed like the momentum was shifted," Evans said. "We were ready to pour it on them and then they just came back at the end and took the lead. Then they just came out with more momentum and energy in the second half. They just took it to us."
The Eagles shot 57.1 percent from the field during the second half, more than doubling Virginia's 25 percent shooting during that time span. Neither Zeglinski nor Farrakhan hit another three during the game as the team finished 19 percent from behind the arc.
"We're a jump shooting team right now. When we shoot 4-for-21 from the three, it's going to be tough," Zeglinski said. "The looks were really good I thought, so it was really frustrating not to be able to knock them down."
Virginia failed to exploit an Eagles defense that ranked as one of the ACC's worst. Boston College, meanwhile, took full advantage of the conference's third highest scorer. Junior guard Reggie Jackson came into the contest averaging 18.2 points per game and posted 25 points Saturday while shooting 62.5 percent from the field.
"He's very good," Evans said of Jackson. "[He's] a very athletic guy, a guy that can get to the basket and shoot the three, so it's very hard to guard him. You can't back off of him, but you can't play him too tight because he can blow right by you."
Senior forward Corey Raji also cut through Virginia's defense, going 7-for-10 from the field and tallying 17 points. Farrakhan and Sene paced the Cavaliers with 10 points each, while freshman guard Joe Harris pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds - his highest total of the season.
Harris "had some rebounds early, he does have what I call a 'nose for the ball,'" Bennett said. "He goes up and grabs it with his size, being 6-foot-6. I guess if there is one bright spot, it's that."
The Cavaliers' defense had surrendered an average of only 55.3 points during its past three games. The team had won two straight and seemed to be heading toward the ACC Tournament with momentum. Saturday's game, however, left the team with a bitter taste ahead of its final home game of the season against N.C. State Tuesday night.
"We were all feeling really good coming into this game," Harris said. "The majority of the first half, we were feeling pretty good, and then as soon as they hit that little run there at the end of the half and then the second half ... It really gets you down. It's just tough to swallow"