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‘Soft’: When this 20-win Virginia team gets down, oddly, it stays down

Chris Graham
uva tony bennett louisville
Photo: Mike Ingalls/AFP

Virginia is maybe the oddest 20-7 college basketball team ever.

The 20 includes wins over likely NCAA Tournament teams Florida, Wake Forest, Clemson and Texas A&M.

The 7 is where things get strange.

How strange?

I included this information in a column after the 75-41 loss at Virginia Tech on Big Monday.


Average margin of defeat: 21.3 points.

  • Wisconsin (65-41, Nov. 20) led by double-digits for the final 11:15
  • Memphis (77-54, Dec. 19) led by double-digits for the final 13:01
  • Notre Dame (76-54, Dec. 30) led by double-digits for the final 27:25
  • NC State (76-60, Jan. 6) led by double-digits for the final 16:20
  • Wake Forest (66-47, Jan. 13) led by double-digits for the final 18:41
  • Pitt (74-63, Feb. 13) led by double-digits for the final 5:17
  • Virginia Tech (75-41, Feb. 19) led by double-digits for the final 26:45

Average time left on the clock when the game was over: 16:57 in the second half.


uva blake buchanan pitt
Photo: Mike Ingalls/AFP

Basically, once this Virginia team gets down, it stays down, pretty much.

Tony Bennett has been talking about this with the media for awhile now, and obviously has no answers.

“They thoroughly outplayed us, and that’s, you know, that’s a tough way to go down. But you know, when you look at it, and you say, Look, we were on a fine line, and if we’re not right, separation can occur, that’s happened to us this year a few times. You’d hope at this stage that it wouldn’t, but it did,” Bennett said after the most recent beatdown.

Credit due, whatever credit we can give here, the first two shellackings – Wisconsin and Memphis – did see the kids make efforts at a comeback before finally reaching for the towels.

Wisconsin was up 11 midway through the first half, led by 10 at the break, but UVA fought back to within five at the 12:54 mark, before an 11-0 Badgers run put that game on ice.

The Memphis game got off the rails early, with the Tigers opening on a 13-1 scoring binge, before Virginia fought back to get the deficit to one late in the first half, and it was still a five-point game at the 15:30 mark before an 18-2 Memphis run over the next six minutes broke that one open.

The others – Notre Dame got out to an early 13-0 lead, and the game was never closer than eight the rest of the way; Virginia led NC State by four at the under-eight first-half timeout before the Pack closed the half on a 20-9 run, and UVA wasn’t closer than nine in the second half; Wake led 12-4 eight minutes in, Virginia tied the score, trailed by six at the break, Wake scored the first seven points out of the locker room, and the rout was on.

And then, Virginia Tech.

It was 16-14 Tech midway through the first half when the lid closed on the Virginia rim.

UVA missed eight straight shots, had four turnovers, and Virginia Tech went 8-of-10 from the floor in a 20-0 barrage that had the outcome decided before the halftime horn had sounded.

The lack of fight after getting behind has to be concerning to Bennett, and let’s be clear here, to the kids.

“I thought we were pretty soft on both ends,” sophomore guard Isaac McKneely told reporters. “We didn’t make them earn on defense, and then offensively, we weren’t screening, weren’t cutting well. A lot went wrong tonight.”

This was junior guard Dante Harris: “I just feel like we got outworked tonight, plain and simple. I definitely felt like we were soft. Didn’t play with a lot of heart.”

I’m not sure we have evidence there that the kids feel the softness they recognize out of themselves is concerning, but at least they acknowledge it.

leon bond
Photo: Mike Ingalls/AFP

It’s here that I will acknowledge one part to this story that doesn’t follow the script that I’m writing on this topic: the Northeastern game.

Virginia found itself down 16-4 eight minutes in, and was still down 13 two minutes into the second half, not getting its first lead until a McKneely three with 7:01 to go in a 54-52 win.

What you don’t want me to tell you is that Northeastern is currently sitting at 10-17 overall and 5-9 in the CAA.

Which is to say, that Northeastern team had no reason to be up double-digits on a 20-win Virginia team; but on the other hand, hey, it was a comeback win, one that the Virginia kids really, really, really had to fight for, and as such, could have been something to build on.

Except that it wasn’t; the Northeastern game was three days before Memphis, and the laydowns at Notre Dame, NC State and Wake Forest followed in short order.

I remember thinking at the time that the Northeastern game was good practice at having to patiently rally from a big hole, and that the muscle memory would be there for the guys to pull from the next time they got down big.

The other part to the story that doesn’t follow the script is Georgia Tech, which led by 11 with 9:04 to go in the first half, before Virginia outscored the Yellow Jackets 20-5 to take a four-point lead into the break, then led by double-digits for most of the second half in what turned into a 75-66 win.

What hadn’t sunk in after the Northeastern game could have taken root after this one, but apparently didn’t.

The next time the Cavaliers faced a big deficit was the Pitt game, after which Bennett let slip in his postgame presser that he thought his players might have “quit” when the game got out of reach late.

Then we had Monday night down in Blacksburg.

“It’s one thing to try hard, and everyone gives effort and tries hard, but when you’re in games like this, in this setting, and a team is clicking, you’ve got to have enough wherewithal to try to somehow stop it,” Bennett said.

“Smarts comes into play with that, too, you know, in terms of, you’ve just got to be as airtight as you can, and if they’re making a lot of tough shots and doing things which they made to share those, and you’re not breaking down, so be it, but you know, again, of course, the film will show it better,” Bennett said.

His last words on this topic: “It’s one game, but that was a step backwards, and that was unfortunate.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].