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Virginia takes a big step back even with win in ACC opener

uva gardner postgame
UVA forward Jayden Gardner. Photo by Dan Grogan.

It’s hard to say much nice about that Virginia win. They won. That’s about it.

“I thought it was game, that he missed, but it takes a little bit of luck,” UVA guard Kihei Clark said.

He was talking about that Jayden Gardner fadeaway that hit every part of the rim, bounded off the backboard, then somehow fell through the net with nine-tenths of a second left to give the ‘Hoos the 57-56 win over Pitt.

This isn’t a good Pitt team. The Panthers came in ranked 201st in KenPom, had lost four games by double-digits, those Ls coming to the likes of The Citadel, UMBC, Vanderbilt.

They’d played a little better in a 54-53 loss to Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier in the week.

Even so.

Virginia led by as many as 10 in the first half, before going scoreless for the final 4:26, allowing Pitt to get back to 30-26 at the break.

The scoring drought in the second half came with the Cavaliers up seven inside of six minutes to go.

This time, the Panthers went on an 11-0 run, and were up 56-52 with 11 seconds left.

Virginia got an and-one from Jayden Gardner, forced a five-second violation on the inbounds, then got the stickback from Gardner to escape.

That’s what this was: an escape.

Against an awful team, whose KenPom number actually ratcheted up to 187 with the loss.

Pitt is one of two sub-100 ACC teams in the KenPom ratings. Boston College is at 110.

KenPom has the Panthers, who lost four starters from last season’s team, then two of this season’s projected starters before the opener, going 8-23 overall, and 4-16 in the ACC.

And they should have won this one, had it stolen from them, basically, with a series of wild bounces.

“We’re showing some mistakes as every team does, but can we just keep growing and learning from those and be better than next time?” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “I thought we started better than we did against Iowa. I thought we were a little more ready, and that was the answer to that challenge, and we had good stretches of basketball.”

There were good stretches, but then, those awful stretches, man.

There were two stretches of around seven minutes without a ball going in the bucket, two others of three minutes-plus.

You’re talking 20 minutes of floor time without a basket there, as Pitt coach Jeff Capel flummoxed UVA with a basic 2-3 zone.

The numbers, for the most part, looked good – Virginia committed just six turnovers on 52 possessions, shot 46.2 percent from the floor.

The 4-of-21 from three is atrocious. The nine fouls and two rebounds in 38 minutes from centers Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro: egregious.

Armaan Franklin missed all six of his threes. A 42.4 percent from deep a year ago at Indiana, he’s shooting 22.9 percent – 11-of-48 – this season.

Reece Beekman had six assists and no turnovers in 34 minutes, but was 0-of-5 from the floor, 0-of-4 from three.

Beekman has made four jumpers – twos and threes – on 30 attempts this season.

That’s 13.3 percent.

‘I just want to keep trying to empower these guys to play beyond mistakes and be assertive and aggressive, and I think there were good stretches of that,” Bennett said. “All of a sudden, you get into stretches and games, and then they tighten up the zone, and then you can just feel it change, and that’s part of working our way through it.”

Gardner finished with 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting, adding five rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes.

This after getting benched for the final 4:01 of the 75-74 loss to Iowa on Monday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge after blowing a help assignment on an alley-oop dunk.

“It takes time, because we have a lot of new pieces, a lot of new parts, guys playing different positions, different roles,” Gardner said. “It’s all about chemistry, and you want to be playing your best basketball come March, so we’re going to keep building to get better day by day.”

“We’re a new group,” said Clark, who had nine points, five rebounds and six assists in 35 minutes. “We’re just trying to figure ourselves out defensively, and we’re trying to find our identity defensively. We’re going to make mistakes, and teams are good. It’s college basketball, anybody can beat anybody. We just continue the game and just try to build on each game, just trying to get better.”

There’s a lot of work still to do. KenPom has this group ranked 80th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and 48th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

The profile fits the 2012-2013 team that finished 83rd offensively and 25th defensively, and played in the NIT – Bennett’s last non-NCAA Tournament team.

It’s funny the difference a last-second shot can do for you. Clark missed a runner that would have beaten Iowa on Monday; Gardner’s shot bounced in tonight.

Funny that you probably felt better after the loss because it involved a spirited comeback against a good team that just came up short.

This one, the win of the two, feels like a lucky W against a just plain bad team from a group that in victory took a big step back.

Story by Chris Graham

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