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Virginia falters at ACC Tournament

Wood, N.C. State dominate hapless Cavs in 75-56 quaterfinal victory; Miami wins title

The only outcome the Virginia men’s basketball team absolutely could not afford at this weekend’s ACC Tournament was a lopsided loss in Friday’s quarterfinal round as it teetered on the brink of NCAA Tournament at-large consideration.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, that was the only outcome NC State was selling. Wolfpack senior forward Scott Wood hit seven 3-pointers — including four straight in a pivotal second-half stretch — for a game-high 23 points, and NC State dominated Virginia on the boards 39-28 to cruise to a 75-56 victory at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Top seed Miami, led by tournament MVP Shane Larkin, eventually defeated No. 3 seed North Carolina 87-77 in Sunday’s final to sweep the regular-season and conference tournament crowns.

The Cavaliers (21-11, 11-7 ACC) shot less than 40 percent from the field in the quarterfinal matchup for the third time in four games, connecting on just 5-of-20 shots from beyond the 3-point arc and allowing more than 70 points to an opponent for just the second time all season.

In short, coach Tony Bennett’s squad laid an egg against an elite adversary, sabotaging its NCAA Tournament chances.

“NC State certainly used their athleticism, their toughness and got a lot of offensive rebounds,” Bennett said. “They got some transition buckets and we didn’t play very well, so that’s the result against a talented team like that.”

Junior forward C.J. Leslie notched 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Wolfpack (24-10, 11-7 ACC), who never trailed the Virginia squad that edged them 58-55 Jan. 29. Freshman forward T.J. Warren added 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting to help NC State shoot a scorching 16-of-32 in the second half.

For junior guard Joe Harris, Friday’s contest prolonged his worst slump of an otherwise outstanding 2012-13 campaign. Virginia’s leading scorer mustered just 13 points and missed seven of his nine 3-point attempts and has hit just 17 of his last 57 shots overall since a career-high 36-point explosion against Duke Feb. 28. Harris, though, was quick to credit NC State for its stingy perimeter defense.

“I thought they did a good job of overplaying,” Harris said. “It just made all the shots tough and just contested. They always had a hand in the face.”

Junior forward Akil Mitchell valiantly tallied a team-high 19 points and eight rebounds thanks to a slew of nifty pirouettes around and drives past Leslie and senior forward Richard Howell, but he failed to prevent the imposing NC State front-line from poaching 10 offensive rebounds. In one second half sequence, Leslie and Howell pulled down five in two possessions, the last of which resulted in a Leslie 3-point play that put the Wolfpack up 60-44 with 7:40 remaining. The Cavaliers could only close the gap as close as 12 thereafter.

“That was probably our chance,” Bennett said of the sequence. “We needed to come up with a [rebound], and those are the plays that you’ve got to get.”

For the third straight contest, Virginia floundered offensively to begin the game. Five days after falling behind 32-19 to Maryland at home in the game’s first half, the Cavaliers consistently secured open perimeter looks and found creases in the lane for short shot opportunities — only to hit just 9-of-28 looks in the first half and trail 30-21 at the break.

Virginia converted just one field goal attempt from farther than five feet from the basket in the first half — a 3-pointer by Harris with 3:45 left in the period. And while they struggled to find the nylon on the offensive end, the Cavaliers customarily-suffocating defense allowed Leslie to operate in the lane with impunity and Wood to hit open perimeter shots.

“We talked about trying to start the right way, but we were sluggish, missed a few easy ones and [committed] a few turnovers,” Bennett said. “Every time we tried to make a mini-run, if you want to call it that, they would answer with a big three, a big shot, or we’d have a breakdown.”

Bennett tried to counteract NC State’s athleticism in the post by affording freshman forward Mike Tobey his second career start, but Tobey mustered only three rebounds and shot just 3-of-9 from the floor.

Thanks to Wood, Virginia’s predicament rapidly worsened in the second half. In addition to stifling Harris on defense, Wood wearied Virginia’s All-ACC First Team representative with his relentless hustle around ball screens to create open 3-point opportunities. His nine-point spurt in a 1:23 span early in the second half propelled the Wolfpack to a 41-25 lead and transformed a semi-competitive contest into a rout.

Wood went on to earn a spot on the All-ACC Tournament Second Team.

“He stepped up today,” NC State coach Mark Gottfried said of Wood. “Not only was he working extremely hard defensively, but he changed the game. He just changed the game.”

A layup from Mitchell trimmed the deficit to 55-44 with 9:24 remaining before Howell and Leslie’s preeminence on the offensive boards scuppered Virginia’s hopes.

Seemingly a foregone conclusion after the victory against Duke two weeks ago, an NCAA at-large bid eluded Virginia after three losses in four games. The team will now host an NIT game on March 19 against Norfolk St. Should they hope to fare better next week, the Cavaliers will need to recover from their collision with the NC State buzz-saw and rediscover some modicum of their early-season form after the most lopsided loss of the season.

“Right now it’s hard to find some [positives],” Bennett said. “Our effort was good, but effort without execution or soundness doesn’t get you a whole lot.”

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