Bennett: ‘Nothing is assumed just because of what’s on the front of your jersey’

uva basketball

Photo credit: Johnnie Izquierdo / Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

Tony Bennett, with a national championship on his resume, knows a college basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint.

Two of his better non-title teams, the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, lost their second games – the first team lost at the buzzer at home to VCU; the second lost by five on the road at George Washington.

Every D-1 team since Indiana in 1976 has lost at least twice.

It’s not that you don’t lose; it’s how you respond to a loss, what you learn.

“Look at it in the mirror, grow from it. Forget about it. If you at all think, Oh, we won the first game handily, and look at our ranking, I mean, we’ve all been down that road,” Bennett said after his fourth-ranked Cavaliers were upset by San Francisco, 61-60, on Friday.

“We have to keep being as good as we can be, and that’s just not coaches-speak. We got to kind of harden up, we got to get gritty, we got to be tougher to score against and be the best version of ourselves.”

There is, doubtless, plenty to work on. San Francisco scored 40 points on 29 second-half possessions, using five-high sets that challenged the Virginia Pack-Line with backdoor cuts leading to rim runs and kickouts to open three-point shooters.

Kihei Clark, reputedly the team’s best on-ball defender, was taken to the woodshed by Dons guard Jamaree Bouyea (19 points, 8-of-15 shooting, six assists, no turnovers in 35 minutes).

On the other end of the floor, Virginia never got into a rhythm, the telling stat of the day being just five assists on 21 made baskets, after recording assists on 17 of the 35 makes in the 89-54 win over Towson on Wednesday.

Not enough help defense, too much hero ball on offense.

That about sums it up.

The game plan on offense seemed to be predicated on attacking San Francisco’s small-ball group by taking the ball to the rim, but then, you’ve got to finish once you get there – and the finishes were largely lacking.

UVA was 2-of-12 at the rim in the first half and 8-of-22 on the afternoon.

Even last year’s offensively-challenged group finished on 58.8 percent of its shots at the rim.

Do that on Friday, and you’re 13-of-22 at the rim, and you win by nine.

“San Francisco, defensively, they were physical, they were quick, and they made it hard, and they had some rim protection,” Bennett said. “The times that we got to the basket, we really labored to finish, partly because of their shot-blocking, and at times, we just weren’t physical enough on finishes. We avoided some contact.”

There were probably some opportunities on those dribble-drives for kickouts, but this is where the hero ball thing comes in.

With all the emphasis on attacking the rim, Virginia – which was 15-of-29 from three in the win over Towson two days ago – was just 3-of-12 on the day on Friday.

“You make a lot of threes against Towson, and that’s the game, and that can be, I don’t want to say fool’s gold, but it was,” Bennett said.

Virginia jumped out to an early 7-0 lead – keyed by an early three from Justin McKoy, the first made three of his young career – three minutes in, but then a long funk sunk in – an excruciating 12:37 stretch that looked too much like last year for anyone’s liking, in which the ‘Hoos missed 15 of its next 16 shots.

A 9-2 spurt to close out the first half pushed UVA to a 24-21 lead, and after back-to-back baskets from Casey Morsell and Jay Huff to open the second half, the working margin was seven, and the ship seemed to be righted.

San Francisco, playing its third game in three days, “they played hard, they were scrappy,” Bennett said.

“Whenever we had maybe a two- or three-possession lead, we would do something either uncharacteristically or unsound that cost us, or they’d make a big play, and that stuff’s there,” Bennett said.

San Francisco answered the UVA run with an 11-0 burst, but the Cavaliers recovered and led 44-39 after a three and a jumper from Tomas Woldetensae, the second coming at the 8:23 mark.

On the Dons’ next possession, Khalil Shabazz hit a three while being fouled by Clark, and just like that, the chance at a working margin was gone.

The butt cheeks started to tighten at that point, but to Bennett, the issue dated back to the opening minutes.

“The energy level, you know, we didn’t look like we were moving real hard, and we looked a little lethargic at times,” Bennett said.

You can bet that won’t be the case again for a while, at least.

“No, I would just say, it is just a game,” said freshman guard Reece Beekman, who had 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 27 minutes off the bench. “We played hard so, yes, we’re down on ourselves, we could have played better, but it’s not like we are just all sad. We just got to move forward and look forward to the next game.”

“San Francisco played a great game. They definitely outhustled us, had more energy than us,” said McKoy, a sophomore who had a career game – 11 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes – in the loss.

“Everything is a learning experience, whether it’s a win or loss,” McKoy said. “This is definitely a learning experience. We take it for what it is, we move on, kind of a neutral mindset to it. And just set the past for what it is and move on to the future.”

Bennett’s message to his team: “Nothing is assumed just because of what’s on the front of your jersey.”

“You just work, and I think some of the concerns or question marks we had showed, and they didn’t get answered. So, we now go to work and say, What can we do to be better. And use this in the best way possible, and that’s all I know how to do.”

Story by Chris Graham


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