South Carolina exposes Virginia warts in halting Cavaliers’ home streak

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Casey Morsell faces up against Gamecocks defender A.J. Lawson (Photo by John Markon).

We all knew what the challenges would be for this Virginia basketball team after losing such a huge portion of its experience, its scoring and its perimeter shooting, not to mention leadership.

With four starters gone from a national championship team, the worst-case scenario projection was that the Cavaliers wouldn’t find offensive consistency and that the freshmen and former role players would struggle to get in sync.

All of that was in plain view a couple weeks ago in a humiliating defeat at Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Aspects of those weaknesses have popped up from time to time.

Sunday afternoon, all of those imperfections were on full display of a pre-Christmas crowd of 14,409 at John Paul Jones Arena as Virginia’s 22-game home non-conference winning streak came to an end in a 70-59 loss to South Carolina.

While the Gamecocks were well-prepared in pulling off the upset, the Cavaliers violated all of Tony Bennett’s tenets that serve as the backbone of his basketball philosophies:

  • Defense: South Carolina shot 55 percent for the game (27 for 49), the highest percentage against the Cavaliers since a loss to Florida State in last season’s ACC Tournament semifinals, leaving Bennett to say, “I thought early we weren’t contesting their shots at the level that we needed to. I can always live with tough shots that are made if you’re bothering the shot, but it’s almost like it surprised us.”
  • Protecting the ball: Virginia committed 19 turnovers, its most since 19 versus West Virginia in December of 2015. South Carolina scored 23 points off those 19 miscues. Bennett: “You’re not going to win against a quality opponent doing that. Turnovers are really costing us. Our margin for error is much smaller than in previous years. Some of [the turnovers] are mind-boggling.”
  • Getting back in transition: UVA takes pride in getting its defenders back into position for most possession, but with the turnovers, the Gamecocks managed to beat the Cavaliers down the floor for 16 fast-break points. 

Compound those shortcomings with the heavy desire by South Carolina to score an eye-popping December win, and Sunday provided a prime opportunity for the nation’s No. 9-ranked team, deservedly or not, to go down.

Frank Martin pointed out that his team, 7-4 coming in, was excited to play the defending national champions, a Top 10-ranked team, and to be playing on national TV, something the Gamecocks had not done this season.

Bennett isn’t the only one that teaches defense. Martin leans that way, too, and his players excelled on that end against UVA.

“I think [South Carolina] sensed that our perimeter players weren’t used to [defenders] being in their shirts,” Bennett said.

He was right. Virginia, which has struggled from behind the arc most of the season, was 6 of 18 from there Sunday (2 of 8 the first half) and appeared reluctant or uncomfortable to launch. Kody Stattmann was the only Cavalier to connect on more than one long-range shot (he was 2 of 3), while Tomas Woldetensae was 1 for 4, Kihei Clark 1 for 3, Mamadi Diakite 0 for 3 and Casey Morsell 1 for 4.

Martin pointed out that “We are long, big strong dudes, which, when you are long like that in the perimeter, it gives you a chance.”

Perhaps pouring salt into the Wahoos’ wounds was the fact that South Carolina outscored UVA 28-20 in the paint, scored 11 second-chance points and had 14 steals.

Virginia fell behind early, managed to tie it for a total of 40 seconds (45-45), and led for only 1:50 of the game.

Bottom line was that Virginia’s offense is not capable of shooting its way out of a big hole when it turns the ball over so frequently. The Cavaliers turned it over 16 times in the season opener at Syracuse and won in spite of themselves, then turned it over 16 times at Purdue and got hammered.

That’s why Bennett challenged Clark after the game. He demands a lot of his point guards and realizes that he asks a great deal from Clark, who is virtually logging huge minutes because of no backup. While the coach understands there are going to be turnovers, he can’t fathom Clark giving it up seven times and essentially told him some of those turnovers must be eliminated.

When one considers that South Carolina had six days to prepare for this game — and give credit to Martin and his staff for researching strategies to combat Virginia — the loss is a little more palpable.

“We made some adjustments on a couple of things to attack Virginia because they are so difficult to score on and our guys executed,” Martin said.

“Tony’s offensive system puts a lot of pressure on your weakside help because the ball is always in the middle of the floor and there’s constant screening on both sides of the floor. If you’re trying to deal with a screen on one side and they pass it to the other side, the guy that was on the right side of the floor is going to be late on rotations. We spent a lot of time on those issues. Our guys were pretty good. We made it difficult for them to catch the ball in areas where they can be really aggressive offensively.

They’re going to get the shots that they want, that’s Virginia basketball. I thought our guys were pretty good, but the backside defense was really good.”

Diakite, the only Cavalier in double figures with 21, said he was a little encouraged because the team fought back from a 13-point deficit to tie, something he thought was improvement with so many young players in the lineup.

Bennett didn’t seem quite as impressed although his team scored its most points in its last seven games and shot its highest percentage (43.9 percent) during that stretch.

“There were stretches of good,” the coach said.

He pointed out that he’ll look at what his team is doing well and try to build on it on the week-long break before hosting Navy on Dec. 29. From that point on, it’s ACC only — 18 more games spread out from Jan. 4 to March 7.

Virginia has a lot of growing up to do.

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