Home The broken pinky that turned UVA basketball’s season

The broken pinky that turned UVA basketball’s season


uva basketballUVA basketball coach Tony Bennett had a choice forced upon him by a random contact between hand and pinky finger six weeks prior.

Justin Anderson had scored 15 points in Virginia’s second-round NCAA Tournament win over Belmont, his third game back from the broken finger suffered in the Cavs’ 52-47 win over Louisville on Feb. 7 that came in the midst of UVA’s second-longest winning streak of the season.

The win was actually just the second of nine in a row for the ‘Hoos after their loss to Duke a week earlier, cooling off a 19-0 start.

Virginia closed out the Louisville win and then won their next seven with Anderson on the sidelines before losing the rematch with Louisville on March 7.

That L left UVA at 28-2 on the season, still apparently a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, a top contender for a Final Four berth, on the cover of Sports Illustrated with four other teams that were tabbed as tough outs for undefeated and top-ranked Kentucky.

Anderson returned for the ACC Tournament, getting 12 minutes off the bench in Virginia’s 58-44 quarterfinal win over Florida State on March 12 and 14 minutes again off the bench in the Cavs’ 71-67 loss to North Carolina a day later.

That loss, inexplicably, knocked Virginia to the two seed line, and a potential third-round matchup with Michigan State, the team that had ended UVA’s 2014 season prematurely, in the Sweet Sixteen, and itself inexplicably underseeded, all the way down to the seven line.

It had been assumed that Virginia could get through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament with Anderson still getting his legs back under him, and finally be back at full strength for the first time since the first Louisville game for the regionals.

Michigan State looming at the end of the first weekend, Anderson needed to get back to speed a little sooner. He had those 15 points in 26 minutes off the bench in the 79-67 win over #15 seed Belmont on Friday night, and was as ready as he was going to be for Michigan State on Sunday.

“I thought it was time,” Bennett said, simply, after the game, and it was time.

Virginia, it turned out, had probably already worn itself out getting to where it was. With Anderson out of the lineup, the Cavs kept winning, but at the expense of their legs, Malcolm Brogdon getting less than 35 minutes only twice after the Feb. 7 game, London Perrantes going under 31 minutes just twice, and that was a result of a broken nose and concussion suffered in UVA’s Feb. 22 win over Florida State.

With the front line of the Pack-Line on tired legs, the defense, the backbone of the team’s success, started breaking down. Going into the Michigan State game, the ‘Hoos had allowed opponents to average better than 1.00 points per possession in four of its last six games, a frightening bump for a team that had allowed less than .850 points per possession until that stretch.

Anderson’s return could have provided a spark, but it was clear from the opening tip that Perrantes and Brogdon were not their usual selves. Perrantes drew the assignment of checking Travis Trice, the Spartans’ leading scorer, and Trice was on fire from the outset, scoring 13 points in the opening 5:32 to fuel a game-opening 15-4 Michigan State run that Virginia never really recovered from.

“I don’t think we made him uncomfortable,” said Brogdon, who eventually took on Trice, and though he slowed the point guard’s roll a slight bit, still saw the junior finish with a game-high 23 points. “I thought he was too comfortable at the very beginning. Losing him in transition and just not pushing him out of his comfort zone. When players that can score at that level get comfortable, then they’re going to knock down a lot of shots.”

The legs being gone also were an issue on the offensive end. Up until Anderson left the lineup with the broken finger, Virginia was ranked in the top five nationally in offensive efficiency. Again, the return of Anderson could have provided a spark, but it didn’t.

Even when the defense settled down, holding Michigan State to eight points in the final 14:28 of the first half, Virginia could only manage to get within five, at 23-18, at the half, because the ‘Hoos were shooting just 26.7 percent from the field.

There was no spark from any direction in the second half. Virginia ended the game at 29.8 percent, hitting on just 2-of-17 from three-point range.

Michigan State hit on 42.5 percent from the field and was 6-of-12 from three-point range, and scored 1.149 points per possession, the best performance by a Virginia opponent in that metric all season long.

Let that sink in. Michigan State had the best offensive game of a Virginia opponent all year, the Cavs shot 29.8 percent from the field, and UVA loses by six.

“As much as we struggled, it was still a two-possession game,” Bennett sighed.

The sounds of the second game of the day at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte were filtering in. Duke, which had finished second to UVA in the ACC, and like the Cavs had been bounced out of the ACC Tournament in the semifinals, was on its way to a second easy win as the top seed in the South Regional.

Had the seeds been flipped, Virginia the one in the South, Duke the two in the East, it would have been the Blue Devils playing Michigan State in the early game on Sunday, Virginia getting San Diego State, likely a chance to get Anderson back in the flow with a little less pressure.

Who knows, though. Maybe the tired Virginia team that was to come up short against the Spartans would have had similar trouble with the Aztecs, offensively challenged though SDSU was this year.

One thing was clear as the curtain came down on Virginia’s season: it all changed the moment that Justin Anderson grabbed that offensive rebound and tried to get the stickback late in the first half against Louisville, another ACC team that will play in the Sweet Sixteen later this week.

Anderson went to the bench clutching his left hand, and set in motion the tense next six weeks that at the same time showed the best of UVA basketball, with the Cavs rising to the occasion in Anderson’s absence, but also the challenges that any team will face when trying to make up for having to go without the services of a superstar player for a lengthy period of time.

– Column by Chris Graham



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