What happened, positives and negatives, and what the team can learn from FSU setback

Game Highlights

Before the 2013-14 season, a loss like Friday's could've been the difference between being in or out of the NCAA tournament. Now, we are wondering where Virginia will be placed as a No. 1 seed. Also keep in mind, UVa had not advanced to the ACC tournament semifinals since 1995 until breaking through for the title in 2014. Now, it has gotten there every year since 2014 except one, 2017.

So first, let's all keep that proper perspective.

That said, that was not Virginia's best effort in its 69-59 ACC tournament semifinal loss to Florida State in Charlotte, N.C. It was the Cavaliers' worst outing since at least the N.C. State road contest, though one could argue they were just as bad against Miami and Notre Dame at home and just escaped because of the caliber of their opponents. The difference in that road win over the Wolfpack and the loss to the Seminoles is that FSU played much better than N.C. State did in that 66-65 Wahoos win Jan. 29. 

The Seminoles were physical -- taking advantage of what the referees gave them, and why shouldn't they? -- did a great job of keeping UVa from getting good looks on 3s by using their size, and hit some really tough shots while also cleaning the glass when they needed to, winning the rebounding battle by a whopping 35-20 (granted, that is easier when making 56.5 percent of your shots).

"They punked us," Jack Salt said in the postgame news conference. "They got us on the glass. They got us in the lane. They just picked us apart."

In the regular-season meeting between these teams in Charlottesville, FSU had no players in double figures, but it had four Friday: David Nichols off the bench (14 points, five rebounds), Phil Cofer (11), Trent Forrest (10, six boards), and Mfiondu Kabengele (10 points, six rebounds). Plus, Christ Koumadje, who is 7-foot-4, had nine points and nine rebounds and was a nuisance on offense and defense with his size and length, and MJ Walker had nine points as well.

For Virginia, De'Andre Hunter led the way with 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting, but he was 0 for 4 from beyond the arc and had just one rebound. Kyle Guy had 11 points and four boards and went 2 for 5 from downtown. It wasn't that he looked bad on 3-point attempts -- 40 percent is a great clip, and he can't expect to shoot like he did against Syracuse and N.C. State every game -- but FSU did a great job of denying him his shot. It's not enough to close out quickly on Guy with a hand up. You pretty much have to be in his hip pocket at all times given how quickly he releases his shot. It's also a good idea to have someone taller than him -- 6-2 -- defending him. Ty Jerome finished with 10 points but made just 4 of his 13 shots and was 2 of 9 on 3s as he went 2 for 15 in the two ACC tournament games, this coming after many at the Hoos Place roundtable predicted he would have a huge ACC tournament. Jerome also had just two assists after tallying 10 on Thursday. Virginia went just 5 for 24 on 3-pointers (20.8 percent) after rising to No. 3 in the nation at the end of the regular season at 41.4 percent. It was the Cavaliers' third-worst shooting performance beyond the arc after the Louisville road win (2 for 17, 11.8 percent) and the Duke road defeat (3 for 17, 17.6 percent).

Kihei Clark recorded nine points, made a 3, collected four boards, and did not turn the ball over, but UVa fans were once again screaming at Tony Bennett to pull him from the game, and that's because FSU was doing a good job of exploiting its size mismatch on him. It wasn't really Clark's fault, but Bennett didn't seem as quick to adjust to what was happening in this game as he has been at other times this season. Still, Clark gave Virginia its last lead of the game on a jumper to make it 45-44 with 13:28 left. The quick hook seemed to be back for Jay Huff, who played just seven minutes and scored a point, and the big man has now played eight or fewer minutes in back-to-back games after playing at least 12 minutes in five consecutive games. Bennett went to him late, but Huff got a drive to the rim stuffed on the backboard. Still, when Virginia was in desperate need of a spark, I think Bennett should've looked to Huff earlier.

Salt came down off whatever he was on Thursday when he exploded for a career-high 18 points, but was still solid with eight points and five rebounds. Mamadi Diakite played 13 minutes, scoring just three points on 1-of-5 shooting, with one miss being a terribly errant 3 in the first half and another being a dunk that would've given Virginia a one-point lead with 12:48 left in the contest. He had zero rebounds. His one good sequence was being patient under the basket and making a shot while getting fouled and making the free throw (but he should've been called for a walk). Braxton Key had four points off a pair of nice tip-ins and four rebounds in 17 minutes.

So how should we digest this loss as Virginia heads into the NCAA tournament next week? There are some positives and negatives to take away, and just some things to remember.

Florida State is a good team that felt disrespected. Terance Mann said after the game no one was talking about FSU despite the 'Noles coming to Charlotte on a five-game winning streak (it had also won 13 of 14). He said all the attention was on Virginia, Duke, and Carolina. Indeed, any team winning the tournament that isn't one of those three would be considered an upset. Also, FSU has these types of games in its DNA. No one is going to give FSU coach Leonard Hamilton points for being consistent, but FSU has proven over the years it knows how to pull a good upset. In 2012, the Seminoles won the ACC tournament by beating Duke and UNC in consecutive games. Let's not forget FSU made it to the Elite Eight last season and wasn't far from the Final Four, bowing to Michigan 58-54. And this season, FSU absolutely should've beaten a full-strength Duke team at home. 

Virginia has not had many problems with conference teams during its unprecedented ACC run, but FSU has been one of the pests. After taking on some close losses to the Seminoles from 2011-13, the Wahoos won five in a row in the series. But now, the 'Noles have won three of the past five, including a 69-62 affair in Tallahassee in the 2015-16 season when UVa was No. 13 and FSU was unranked. That was of course the Cavaliers team that ended up going to the Elite Eight. And last year in Tallahassee, Virginia won, 59-55, but not before the Seminoles had built an 11-point lead. Just like Friday night, in that game last year, Virginia chipped away at the lead, and it was a one-possession game from the 10:58 to 4:32 marks in the second half until Jerome made a 3 to give Virginia a five-point cushion. That run UVa fans are used to never came Friday. There was no separation. Even in the January rout, FSU never let off the gas, getting in Virginia's grill right up to the final buzzer. It was a punk move and controversial, but these type of psychological tactics from Hamilton must work. I admire his edge and his Frank Martin-esque stare, and his team usually responds. The type of game that happened Friday is nothing new in this rivalry.

I was happy to see Virginia go to some pressure defense late in the game, but like Huff's entrance in the second half, I wish it would've come quicker. Still, UVa was able to turn FSU over at least twice that I can remember. I think that is such valuable practice for the NCAA tournament. If the 'Hoos are lucky enough to win the whole dang thing, do we really think they'll be able to lead to the end of every game? UVa is behind so little during the regular season, and the Pack-Line defense is not a pressure defense, so the Wahoos barely get to run traps and presses. It's one of the reasons I'm a proponent of -- let's not say Virginia losing in the regular season -- but at least having to perform under pressure. There have been times when the team has figured out how to win this season, but Friday night was not one of those times. That doesn't mean the loss can't be used positively going forward.

"These guys have been amazing all year, and we have always found ways to pull it out," Bennett said. "And sometimes that's a good reminder when you can't pull it out. We need to tighten the screws."

I was not happy to see whatever that was Jerome was doing at the end of the game, throwing up two crazily long shots (that weren't in the flow of the offense and measured like the bomb against Syracuse was). It looked desperate. There were three times Friday where I was reminded of a UMBC-type desperate effort: those two shots and when Guy went flying down the paint -- with no offense having been run -- only to get denied by another FSU tower. If nothing else, everyone always talk about Virginia's poise. Well, the players need to show it in these situations. None of those three actions furthered the cause of trying to rally. Does this team not remember the Louisville comeback last season? The game was not over when Guy did that down eight with nine minutes left. It's another great reminder of something that won't fly in the NCAA tournament. Virginia needs to trust the process in those situations. Yes, there is a time to go, go, go. But that wasn't it.

Virginia fans should not make excuses for losing to UMBC. Without Hunter, it still shouldn't have happened. But, we've clearly made that a huge reason for losing, and to be fair, it was a major part of the upset and commentators such as ESPN's Jay Bilas have pointed it out, too. That means, for me, the No. 1 goal in the ACC tournament was to stay healthy. Yes, winning it would've been awesome, and losing sucks, but health has to be the No. 1 priority if we are choosing between the two. Seemingly, that has happened (knock on wood). Now, how does Virginia use this setback? What comes next? This team's ability to respond to losses the past few seasons is usually strong. What was learned in this one?

Why didn't Bennett go to Huff sooner? What will he do when Clark is playing a solid game overall but getting abused because of his size? Will he trade offense for defense in the NCAA tournament at all? Will anything else get slightly tweaked? How important will matchups be going forward? What can be done about the players' mindset when they are down? It just isn't something they experience much with the team being so good.

We will get some answers soon enough, but losing is not the worst thing that could've happened if the team responds and improves the right way. It will have to, because a performance like Friday's won't cut it if the team wants to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.

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