You want to give Tony Bennett credit, and then you want to give him a hug. Because guy is trying, almost minute by minute, to figure it out, though time might be running out on him in that respect.
He started Tomas Woldetensae Monday night against Miami, and the senior rewarded that move with an early three, but that was it, and Woldetensae got 15 minutes of floor time, from starter to back to being an afterthought in a vermilion flash.
Justin McKoy was the first big off the bench, and after a big first half, Bennett started the sophomore in the second half in the 62-51 UVA win – ahead of, gulp, Jay Huff, who got only 24 minutes, and not because of foul trouble.
Kihei Clark got 28 minutes at the point, had two points and five assists.
Reece Beekman, after starting for seemingly ever, was on the bench at the tip for this one, but went on to have his one of his more effective games in ages, with four points and four assists in 28 minutes.
Bennett even coaxed eight good minutes out of Francisco Caffaro, which, when you can do that, makes what the folks at NASA did to get the Perseverance rover to land on Mars look easy.
The offense ran well. Clark and Beekman kept getting their teammates open looks.
The shots, as shots are wont to do, largely weren’t falling.
Virginia, coming in, was shooting 39.3 percent on jumpers from three and 44.8 percent on jumpers from two.
Monday’s numbers: 8-of-22 (36.4 percent) from three, not far off from what you’d expect, but the twos, ugh.
Just 3-of-15. Twenty percent.
It wasn’t because they weren’t getting good looks; it was because they weren’t getting finishes.
You’re supposed to be hitting your stride when the calendar turns to March.
This team, from top, Bennett, through, feels like it’s lacking in anything resembling confidence.
“Jay didn’t have a particularly good game, nor did Kihei, quite honestly, and that’s the reality,” said Bennett, who, oh, yeah, also started the second half with Clark on the bench.
“Those guys are a big part of this program, but for us to be good, they need to be ready and be sharp,” Bennett said.
Cue Ice Cube and Chris Tucker from “Friday.”
This, emphatically, is not a good place for this program to be, heading into the final game of the regular season, Saturday at Louisville.
Clark not only had just the two points on 1-of-4 shooting in 28 minutes, but he seemed to be getting beaten consistently off the dribble in the first half, leading to his benching.
Huff’s benching wasn’t his defense – he had seven rebounds and was credited with one block, and he altered at least three other Miami shots.
It was his offense, lack thereof – seven points, but on 2-of-10 shooting, in 24 minutes.
He had two shots blocked at the rim, and allowed two others to be altered out of his tendency toward excessive finesse-y-ness.
His replacement to start the second half, McKoy, suffers not in terms of a similar lack of aggression.
McKoy was 4-of-8 from the floor and pulled down six rebounds in 21 minutes, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I was in the arena as I was writing this to see him still out there on the floor shooting jumpers, chasing rebounds for a teammate, running a mop, whatever – kid is a vessel of endless energy.
“My role is bringing energy and effort all the time,” McKoy said after the game. “Just playing the right way, scoring, rebounding, all those things that people like. Energy and effort, I think, are the biggest things.
“I’ve been through a lot this season, and I was unhappy with some of the results I was getting, but at the same time, these coaches told me to stay ready, and to stay positive. Believing in them wholeheartedly was a big part of it,” McKoy said.
You can hear, in listening to Bennett postgame, that whatever solution he has in the works to his team’s ills, it has at least some McKoy in it.
“I love his heart and his energy. It’s that way at practice,” Bennett said. “He started earlier in the year, and then he’s gone through a patch where he didn’t play as much, but his work ethic and his effort has never wavered. He injected offensive rebounding, a couple of buckets and just toughness and effort. That was so lacking, so it was really important. That’s what this team needs, and he brought that.
“I like what I saw from him really the last couple games, and then some more in practice. I was really happy for Justin and his contributions to this game and hopefully moving forward,” Bennett said.
Bennett had seemed to err on the side of talent over grit as his team tried to work its way through this odd COVID-19 season, and the 11-1 start in ACC play was justification.
The three-game losing streak that started with the blowout loss at Florida State two weeks ago has cast a pall on the program, and honestly even the double-digit win over a feisty, but overmatched Miami squad won’t quiet the doubters.
Saturday at Louisville isn’t must-win, in terms of postseason implications.
It may very well be, though, just in the sense of what this team’s goals had been at the start of the season.
Starting the second half with Huff and Clark on the bench is basically pushing the panic button.
A message was sent from Bennett to his leaders.
Was it a message received?
We don’t know. In the COVID season, we get two players postgame, on Zoom, and neither Huff nor Clark was among the two tonight.
The talent on this squad suggests a ceiling that involves a banner.
The floor is what you’ve seen the past two weeks.
Story by Chris Graham