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Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: How Virginia blew late lead in loss to FSU

jayden gardner
Jayden Gardner drives to the hoop for two of his game-high 21 points. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Tony Bennett went small a lot Saturday against oversized Florida State. It worked until it didn’t, and that it didn’t is why Virginia is now off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“I thought we were on the edge all night with our defense, and then they started scoring quickly. They kept just driving it right by us,” Bennett said after the 64-63 to Florida State on Saturday, which came down to the final play, a desperation three at the buzzer by FSU freshman Matthew Cleveland, but this one should never have come down to the final play.

Virginia led by 10 with 3:26 to go, and nine with 2:19 to go, but the Cavaliers, who have long hung their hats on what they do to opponents on the defensive end, couldn’t get a stop down the stretch to save their lives.

Florida State made its last eight shots from the field, four of them layups, two short jumpers in the paint.

Bennett never could get the right mix of guys to play enough defense, really from the opening tip.

Literally. Florida State won the opening tip, and Francisco Caffaro, who’d jumped center, was nowhere near his opposite number, ‘Noles center Tanor Ngom, who streaked down the court to the front of the rim, and was left wide open under the basket for a game-opening layup.

“When you drop a tough game like that, you look at the opening play of the game, we didn’t even know who we had, that’s a bucket,” Bennett said. “Some of those things should just not happen, and some of the careless plays, those sting because of that stuff. We have to be sharp in those areas, most of the time, if not all the time.”

Caffaro had solid counting stats – seven points and 11 rebounds in 18 minutes – but Bennett subbed him out at the 15:56 mark of the second half after he got beat on a slip screen for an Ngom layup and then failed to close out on a Harrison Prieto three, and never brought him back in.

Backup Kadin Shedrick was, for his part, almost a ghost in his 11 minutes on the floor, scoring two points on one made basket, a second-half dunk, with four rebounds and a turnover.

Add up their minutes, and you get 29, meaning Bennett went with a four-guard lineup that moved 6’6” power forward Jayden Gardner to small-ball center for 11 minutes.

From a review of the play-by-play, it was actually 11:47 of clock time, the first 9:51 of which worked out well for Virginia, which outscored FSU 18-6 over the three stretches of time that Bennett went small.

The final 1:56 – from the 2:41 mark, with UVA up, 56-50, to the 45-second mark, with the lead down to one, at 60-59 – was the difference in this game.

Florida State made four shots from the field in that 1:56 of clock time, two of the makes layups, the third a short jumper in the lane.

The strategy during that stretch was simple: spread the floor, and take the ball to the rim.

Even with all of that, the game was still Virginia’s to lose down the stretch, though the ‘Hoos seemed bound and determined to make it interesting at the end.

After Cleveland, who finished with 20 points, 10 coming in the final 2:06, completed an and-one to make it 60-59 UVA with 45 seconds left, Kihei Clark committed his lone turnover of the night on Virginia’s next possession, but Kody Stattmann chased down a fast-break pass and tipped it to Armaan Franklin, who was fouled in the backcourt.

Virginia was in the one-and-one, and Franklin made the first to push the lead to two, then missed the second, which left the door open for Cleveland, again, who converted with a driving layup with 6.3 seconds to go that tied the game at 61.

A break to review the clock gave Bennett a chance to draw up a play, and the inbounds went to Franklin, who drove the pass all the way to the free throw line, then sank a runner with 1.0 seconds left to put Virginia back up two.

FSU used its last timeout to set up an inbounds play, with Prieto the trigger, covered by Shedrick.

A screen on the baseline gave Prieto a sliver of daylight, and he quarterbacked the ball into the frontcourt to Cleveland, who caught the pass, turned and, off one foot, swished the game-winner as the final horn sounded.

“I know you guys may find this interesting, but we work on that every day,” ‘Noles coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We’ll warm up and shoot free throws, then we go into our shooting drills, and every day at the end, we make half-court shots. And that was just one of those fortunate shots for us that went in.”

Bennett broke down the final play from his perspective.

“What we’ve done in the past before is put a big on the ball to make the pass hard. Kadin jumped up. They found him,” Bennett said. “I mean, I think he kind of went and broke back, and there’s a little space and then Armaan had, looked like in real time, obviously didn’t want to foul, but just tried to get his hands up, and he made what, I mean, probably about a 30-footer at the buzzer. I don’t know what more we could have done, possibly there’s some other things.”

The game was lost there, yes, but it also wasn’t there.

Two turnovers and two missed free throws in the final 1:33, not getting a single stop in the final 3:26, all to lose on a 30-foot prayer at the buzzer.

This was the textbook definition of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

“They certainly made some plays, as we just talked about, down the stretch,” Bennett said. “I felt with the turnovers, and the ability to not just get a stop, cost us dearly. We’ve been close on the edge in a lot of games. We won some close ones. And you can’t play with fire like that.”

Story by Chris Graham


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