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Ohio 62, Virginia 58: Tough way to end eight months in COVID hoops quarantine

kihei clark ncaa tournament
Kihei Clark drives to the hoop. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

You think of the players as guys who show up on your TV box a couple of times a week like they live in a video game.

Surprise! They’re real people, have lives outside your TV.

Normal year, they’re on Grounds in July, beginning preseason workouts, getting ready for the start of practice in October, and in their free time bonding in each others’ apartments, on white water rafting trips, excursions to the bowling alley, jaunts out for ice cream.

Seriously, Tony Bennett arranges those kinds of things for his teams.

Didn’t get to do that this year.

This year was about having as little in-person contact as possible, so as not to send the team into a COVID protocol that would shut the whole operation down.

Bonding would come over Zooms, in masks in preseason practices.

Learning the Pack Line, mover blocker, the five high sets that Bennett wanted to implement to better take advantage of his skill guys, would have to come in games – only, there weren’t as many of those.

Normal year, you get 12 non-conference games in November and December, 18 conference games in January, February, into March, then it’s March Madness.

Didn’t get that this year.

The games with Michigan State and Villanova were lost to a COVID pause.

The home ACC game with Virginia Tech: lost to another COVID pause.

The guys got 24 game days heading into the tip for the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Twenty-four days in the eight months since they arrived on Grounds.

The other roughly 225 days in that stretch were life in the most grueling remake of “Groundhog Day” we could conjure for ourselves.

Online classes, avoiding even going to the grocery store, for fear of picking up this virus, and being the reason for missing a week of games, practices.

All to get to a Saturday night in Indianapolis.

Even that came at the end of another COVID pause that almost cost the team the chance to defend the program’s 2019 national title.

One practice leading into the game with Ohio, then a flight the day before, COVID test, quarantine, another COVID test, gameday.

Two hundred fifty days to get to this one, and you had to feel like the dream that we’ve all had, where you show up for the final exam, and you’ve missed all the classes all semester, forgot to study, and if you fail, you don’t graduate.

I have that one every few months.

That was UVA basketball’s situation last night.

You don’t need me to tell you that the season ended with a 62-58 loss to the Bobcats, who had earned their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the MAC championship last week, after coming off two COVID pauses of their own.

The loss for Virginia, then, isn’t a factor of having had the past week taken away.

“We wanted a chance to play in this tournament. We got the chance,” Bennett said, crediting Ohio, which trailed by seven with 14:36 to go, took control with a 16-2 run over the next 10:09, then held off the champs after they got themselves back to two points down two different times down the stretch.

“The NCAA allowed us to come in, in a unique way. But thankful for it. It just stings right now to not advance in this tournament. It’s such a special tournament,” Bennett said. “Again, you know how that goes. It’s the last game of the year. That’s always tough. I know our guys are feeling it right now.

“We had some chances. I’m sure I’ll get asked that question. Don’t know if we got tired down the stretch or felt a little bit of the pressure, but thought we got some good looks. Just had a pretty poor shooting day, very poor shooting day from three with some quality shots.”

Yeah, that’s a Captain Obvious statement there.

Virginia, ranked 12th nationally in offensive efficiency coming in, shot 35 percent from the floor and was just 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) from three on the night.

It was a particularly brutal night for stars Jay Huff (4-of-11 from the floor, 1-of-6 from three) and Sam Hauser (4-of-16 from the floor, 1-of-8 from three).

Bennett credited Ohio for what it did defensively, but, no. It wasn’t what Ohio was doing.

The Bobcats didn’t take the Cavaliers out of what they wanted to do.

It wasn’t bad offense, too much dribbling, too many end of shot clock heaves.

The offense was getting good look after good look; they just weren’t falling.

“I thought in the second half we ran pretty good offense and got the kind of looks, the rhythm open looks, or in the lane the shots we wanted. We really had trouble capitalizing on them. I take, again, the quality of the looks,” Bennett conceded.

It’s said often that basketball is a make-or-miss game.

There you go.

“The guys played as hard as they could, and they fought. But I think that ability comes down to banging a big shot here or there or getting a rhythm. As far as from a shooting standpoint, looked like we didn’t knock down the shots we usually make. Again, they did a good job guarding us. They were quality looks from my standpoint,” Bennett said.

Credit to Bennett, who had to address reporters after the historic 1-vs.-16 upset by UMBC in 2018, he deflected several attempts from reporters to try to get him to say, We lost because we were in quarantine.

“We were grateful to the NCAA for giving us that. We met all the protocols. I know more about protocols than I care to, to be honest. We weren’t sure after our Syracuse game if we were going to get a chance to play in the tournament. We were allowed that opportunity,” he answered one.

“We came in, you know, we thought we had a chance. We certainly did. I don’t know if it would have mattered if it was a normal prep or not. How can you say? We played a good team, and that’s this tournament,” he answered another.

Hauser, the lone player made available to the media in the postgame Zoom, echoed his coach.

“It’s just one of those things where the shots just weren’t falling,” he said. “I don’t think it was tired legs at all. I think it’s one of those games that it happens. It happens to everyone. That’s why your defense has to be real good. I thought our defense was pretty good up until they made that run in the second half.

“But you can’t make any excuse for not being able to make shots. You have to find other ways to score. Tonight we just left some baskets out there that we should have made.”

You feel for Hauser, who transferred from Marquette in 2019, had to sit out last season as a redshirt, then had this as his senior year.

And for Huff, also a fifth-year senior, who was a role player on the 2019 title team, before coming into his own as a foundational piece the past two seasons – one ending when the NCAA Tournament was canceled, the second one ending … this way.

And for Tomas Woldetensae, who came to UVA in 2019 as a JUCO transfer, and had this mess the past two seasons.

“You thank them,” Bennett said, answering a question on, What do you say to these guys? “You know there will be probably better times to speak clearer to them about what they meant and who they are as men and as players. After the game, not a lot is heard. It’s just trying to encourage them and thank them and tell them that they’ll always be a part of this.

“They’ll have an ACC regular-season championship, and they got a chance to play in the tournament. That will sting how it ended, but that was the extent of it. I said I wish I had some magic words to make the sting go away, but I don’t. Time heals all things.”

Maybe, maybe not.

Let’s hope so.

“Definitely going to remember it. Everything was different. It wasn’t a normal college basketball year. But overall I was just happy to be able to play and be able to play a pretty good number of our games,” Hauser said.

“Obviously, this last week has been hectic, but we were just happy we were able to have a chance to play in the tournament. That’s where you want to be able to end your season, is this tournament. Overall a good year. ACC champs. Can’t take that away from us, for sure.”

And, hey, at least Virginia went out on the court.

About an hour before the tip for the game with Ohio, the news came down that VCU had been forced to bow out of its scheduled game with Oregon because of multiple COVID positives.

Which seems odd, because the VCU program had been undergoing daily COVID tests for the past three weeks, hadn’t had a single positive in that time, and then out of the blue, multiple positives on game day.

Virus gonna virus.

“Oh, no, man. I didn’t know. VCU couldn’t play their game against Oregon?” Bennett said when a reporter asked.

“What is it with us Virginia schools? Oh, man, I’m sorry to hear that for those young men. I didn’t know that.”

Maybe it’s not the worst thing in the lives of the UVA kids that they don’t have to have that long stick in their noses for a count of 10 lording over what they can and can’t do for the next 24 hours.

They get to wake up and tomorrow morning and be regular people for the first time since July.

“That’s hard to deal with for however … I think we’ve been on campus since July. Just dealing with that, just being able to be around each other, getting to know each other better was huge for us,” Hauser said. “We definitely got to know each other to a deeper level that I don’t think we would have in normal circumstances. I think that’s definitely a positive.

“The basketball piece, I think overall everyone was just happy to be able to play and have a season because last year got cut short.”

“Hard to kind of evaluate the whole year,” Bennett started on this one.

“It was a windy road, unique. The way it started, obviously this last, whatever, nine or eight days, is strange and as unique as you’d find heading into this.

“Again, at the start of the season we didn’t even know if we would get to play that many games, what would happen with the NCAA Tournament. I’m glad we’re having the NCAA Tournament, but it was a strange year unlike any, and I hope it never happens again. There’s such an experience when the fans are there, the excitement of it. That won’t take anything away from the teams of course that are advancing.

“One for the ages, for sure,” Bennett said. “I’m sure I’ll reflect and have some better insights on it. It was a lot. You come in, most teams came in I think June and July, none of the guys got to go home. I think it was just hanging in there and enduring and growing, enjoying times together, kind of suffering through the rough stuff.”

Everybody wanted another game or two.

It wasn’t meant to be.

“I faced such joy in this tournament on so many occasions. I’ve faced the heartache, too,” Bennett said. “Again, as I say, you always have to be willing to accept them both, know that when your career is done, this doesn’t define you, whether you win it all or you lose or anything. It’s what you do, you do it with love, joy and passion, then you don’t let it define you beyond what it should.”

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press