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Cavs aim to stop slide against Tigers

Bennett identifies stronger finishing, selfless defense as keys to win against Clemson

November 21; Charlottesville, VA USA; Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. Virginia defeated Oral Roberts University 76-55.
November 21; Charlottesville, VA USA; Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. Virginia defeated Oral Roberts University 76-55.

The Virginia and Clemson basketball teams are decidedly opposite.

Clemson (15-6, 4-3 ACC) has rebounded from a rocky start to win 10 of its last 12 games and rise to tie for fourth in the ACC standings. Virginia (11-10, 2-5 ACC) began the season 10-5, but has sunk to the conference's cellar while losing five of its last six contests.

The Tigers played stellar defense during their two most recent outings to earn 60-50 and 62-44 wins against N.C. State and Florida State, respectively. Those 94 points scored against them marked the fewest Clemson has allowed in consecutive conference matches since its 1958-1959 campaign.

Conversely, Virginia's past two games proved historic only for their disappointment. The Cavaliers managed an all-time low 42 points at John Paul Jones Arena Thursday and followed that loss with one to the ACC's then last-ranked team, Wake Forest.

When the two teams collide Wednesday at JPJ, Clemson will be eyeing its fifth straight 20-win season and a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Virginia will be looking for a gut check.

"Your character gets tested when you're going through adversity and that's why you better be able to handle adversity," coach Tony Bennett said. "You can't just stick your head in the sand and say, 'Hey, you're fine, don't worry about it."

The Cavaliers cannot help but acknowledge their recent troubles, especially after letting a 10-point lead against Wake Forest slip away.

"Almost all the games that we lost, we just lost it at the end of the game," junior center Assane Sene said. "We just have to push ourselves and work harder, especially at the end of the game, because I think that time is the perfect time to win."

A "win-at-the-end" strategy may seem self-evident, but it bears repeating for a Virginia team that has struggled to close out games. The Cavaliers have held second half leads in four of their last five losses.

"We're finding ourselves playing some good stretches of basketball and having a hard time finishing strong," Bennett said. "We're trying to emphasize a level of soundness and confidence to be able to finish games."

During Virginia's disappointing stretch, Sene has been one of the team's bright spots. He had a career-high 15 rebounds against Maryland, and added 13 more boards and a personal-best 15 points against the Demon Deacons.

"I've been working on my hands and my footwork, and then physically finishing," Sene said. "I'm trying to take my time every time I have the ball and be more confident every time I step on the court - to have fun, play hard, and be more aggressive."

Sene's activity in the paint will be paramount against Clemson's talented big man, senior forward Jerai Grant. Grant ranks second on the team with 12.6 points per game and leads the Tigers with 7.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a night. His 52 blocks this season are the third most in the ACC.

"I know [Grant's] game because I've played against him like three times." Sene said. "I'm going to keep focus on him, or whoever else their big man is, and just try to help my team to win."

The Cavalier defense will also look to temper Clemson's leading scorer, senior guard Demontez Stitt. Stitt contributes 13.8 points per game, and has averaged six assists during his last five games. To stop Stitt, Virginia will look to play a more selfless brand of defense.

"At times, there's a tendency to try to cover for yourself on the defensive end and just worry about your guy scoring and it's not as much of a team defense," Bennett said. "We're trying to be consistent and encourage simplicity so there isn't as much thinking, you're just playing."

Although Virginia's early success may have stalled, Bennett has still instilled faith in the team. When they host the Tigers, the Cavaliers can look to their counterparts and see evidence that a season can turn around.

"Coach Bennett really cares about his players, so he does a great job by motivating us, and we all keep our heads up no matter what happens," Sene said. "Clemson is a really good team, but we have to get ready to fight back and just win this game"