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After sloppy effort, Virginia moves forward fortunate, but focused

uva basketballColumn by Zach Pereles

Sixteen turnovers.
Twenty-two fouls committed.
Sixteen offensive rebounds allowed.

Typically, those are not the ingredients to success for any team, much less for a Virginia team that prides itself on discipline on both ends of the court. On Tuesday night, though, the Cavaliers overcame the sloppiness on both ends to eke out a 66-65 win at North Carolina State.

“We didn’t do a great job in those areas,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said postgame. “Usually when you give up that many offensive rebounds and that many turnovers, you’re not going to be successful. But we made enough good plays and hung in there and got some good lifts from guys.”

The Cavaliers turned the ball over on two of their first four possessions of the game — a sign of things to come — and led just 27-23 at halftime. It was tied for the fewest points Virginia has scored in a first half this season.

“NC State plays good defense,” Bennett said. “They’re athletic and aggressive. They did rattle us, or take us out of our rhythm. Some of our offensive fouls and decision making … almost cost us the game.”

In the second half, the Cavaliers began to look more prepared to deal with the Wolfpack’s aggressive defense, which often extended the entire 94 feet. When Ty Jerome splashed a deep three to give the visitors a 42-28 lead with just over 12 minutes to go, it appeared Virginia’s troubles with the pesky hosts would be over.

Instead, they were just getting started.

Virginia then went roughly four-and-a-half minutes without making a field goal. After De’Andre Hunter found the bottom of the net with 7:42 left to break the drought, Virginia led just 47-41. Give credit to the Wolfpack, who simply refused to go away, battled hard on the offensive glass and ratcheted up the intensity defensively. Virginia’s offense struggled to find any semblance of rhythm. Every perimeter pass was contested, and the Wolfpack challenged the Cavaliers’ attempts in the paint with active hands and quick help-side defense.

“I thought we had some chances to separate a little bit, but they made some big plays,” Bennett said. “We brought losing into the equation when I didn’t know we had to.”

Despite it all, the Cavaliers had a chance to win it in regulation. Jerome got a good drive to the bucket but missed strong. The visitors shot less than 50 percent from two-point range, and Jerome and Kyle Guy — who have greatly improved inside the arc this season — combined for just 5 for 13 from that area.

After two Hunter free throws gave Virginia a three-point lead with just 5.2 seconds remaining in overtime, it looked like the nation’s No. 3 team was finally out of the woods, needing only to defend a desperation three.

Wrong again.

Hunter bumped into Markell Johnson as he was attempting a last-second heave, giving the NC State guard three free throws.

And this time, the ‘Hoos were on the end of some good luck — perhaps earned by battling through their own ugly performance, perhaps not earned at all. Johnson missed the first free throw and made the second. Needing to purposely miss the third and hope for an offensive rebound, Johnson accidentally found the bottom of the net. The visitors would survive.

It was a rugged effort from Virginia, but give the team credit. At crucial times, it made the plays it needed to make. When Johnson’s overtime-opening three gave NC State its first lead of the game, Jay Huff answered immediately with a traditional three-point play, finishing a dunk through contact and then making the free throw.

“Jay made some really good offensive plays for us,” said Bennett, who saw Jack Salt foul out and went with Huff for the entirety of overtime.

Then Guy, who struggled all night, hit his lone three of the game, a well-contested shot from the corner.

“That was huge,” Bennett said. “That was huge for him. You always want him, when he has a good look, to take the shot.”

Players stepping up at crucial times allowed the Cavaliers to escape. And when all parts of their game seemed to be falling apart, the Cavaliers clung to one of their calling cards: tight perimeter defense. The Wolfpack came in 18th in the nation in three-point shooting percentage. It shot just 7 of 26 from deep.

It was by no means a great performance for Virginia. The Cavaliers made mistakes. They missed assignments. They, at times, looked confused.

At the end, though, they were also the ones with smiles on their faces in the handshake line. The smiles were partially of happiness and partially of relief, but they were smiles nonetheless.

After all six of its ACC wins came by double figures, Virginia’s nailbiter victory in Raleigh will certainly give the team the opportunity to learn from its mistakes, something that is difficult to do after a blowout win.

“[We’re] thankful for the win, but need to grow from this and learn from it,” Bennett said.

Given this team’s track record, expect just that.