South Carolina Shows Trip to JPJ Not as Undesirable as Usual in Win

Game Highlights

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When Virginia tied South Carolina at 45 after being down 13 in the second half of Sunday's game in Charlottesville, just about everyone in attendance at John Paul Jones Arena had to be thinking, "This is when we take over and win." Even some South Carolina fans probably thought that. After all, UVa made a habit of coming up clutch in March and April during its spectacular run to the national championship. For the most part, that's been the Wahoos' M.O. since midway through the 2013-14 season -- take over in the second half of a close game as the python-like Pack-Line and brutally efficient offense put a vice grip on opponents.

But as we were reminded again, this is not last year's team. Virginia did not take the lead at that point, and it also didn't grab it later after whittling the margin to 51-50. Ultimately, the Cavaliers fell 70-59, snapping their 22-game nonconference home winning streak. It was their first loss to a foe outside the ACC at JPJ since Dec. 3, 2016, when West Virginia prevailed, 66-57. UVa slipped to 9-2 and was voted No. 16 in the AP Top 25 on Monday.

The Purdue game earlier this month wasn't close, and while we would've liked for the Wahoos to have been competitive, at some point, you just had to tip your hat to the Boilermakers. They were out for revenge and got it, big time. Though the margin was alarming, I almost gave the team a pass in that game since we sort of "deserved" the payback.

But this matchup with South Carolina was different. It was close down the stretch, and Virginia could not make the big plays when it mattered. The Cavaliers could not get the big stop or the big shot to get over the hump. An incredibly frustrating 19 turnovers -- which South Carolina turned into 23 points -- made the comeback mission all the more difficult. Kihei Clark was the biggest offender with seven, but four other players had at least two as Virginia was just plain sloppy with the ball. At one point early in the second half, Clark, who was not looking at Mamadi Diakite, passed to the big man beyond the 3-point line, and Diakite, who was shouting instructions to his teammates, missed the pass. It was stolen by a South Carolina player, whom Diakite then fouled. Across the court on the bench, Tony Bennett just lowered his head in disdain.

Being airtight with the ball and doing the little things that are needed to win close games -- it's just not in this team's DNA right now -- at least not consistently. We've seen it in spurts of course: against UNC, Vermont, and Arizona State. But there are more letdowns now than fans are used to.

Virginia tied the contest at 45 with 11:09 left as Clark hit a 3, the team got two stops -- one on an offensive foul and one on a steal by Diakite -- and Diakite's dunk and Braxton Key's one free throw drew the Cavaliers even. JPJ was rocking, ready to burst as fans anticipated a Cavalanche. On the good side of things, that rally gives me confidence the Cavaliers do have an offense capable of overcoming double-digits deficits, despite their issues. However, how many times in the past couple of years have we seen the team take over in that situation and win by 10?

But Sunday, on South Carolina's next possession, Diakite went to guard a South Carolina player driving to the hoop, and Kody Stattmann failed to rotate and help on Diakite's man. The result was a layup. Diakite was visibly upset and yelled at Stattmann, gesturing that he had to rotate down. The much more common sight in the Bennett era is the team getting a stop there.

South Carolina bumped the lead to 50-45. UVa made it 51-50, and then, Casey Morsell, playing aggressive on-ball defense, was called for a foul, and the Gamecocks made two free throws. Morsell clanked a 3 on the other end. After that, South Carolina got a layup, and UVa never got within a basket again. Besides the foul followed by the defensive breakdown, last year, Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome would've made that 3 to tie the game again. But this Virginia team lacks the 3-point shooting to get them out of bad spots and give them more chances to surge ahead.

UVa was not awful beyond the arc at 6 of 18 (33 percent), but still nothing special and not what it needed. Stattmann made 2 of 3, but no one else made more than one. On the season, UVa is shooting 26.2 percent on 3-pointers. In 2018-19, the team was just below 40 percent. Good 3-point shooting can cover other blemishes on offense and overcome defensive lapses and fouls caused by aggressive defense. Turnovers become not as damaging. Look at last season's win in Raleigh: Virginia committed 16 turnovers but edged N.C. State in overtime. 

Virginia's margin for error is lower this year with its lack of outside shooting. A defensive stop fails to yield a big 3 on the other end of the floor. The players are getting shots and stops here and there, don't get me wrong. I just refereced a couple. But they're not stringing them together. There's no snowball effect. No Cavalanche.

Diakite led the team with a career-high 21 points on 6-of-13 shooting (0 for 3 on 3s), but he didn't get much help, with no one else scoring in double figures. Clark recorded nine points and Key eight as he began to look more like himself in his second game back from his injury -- something the Wahoos desperately need. Stattmann, Morsell, and Huff added six each. Diakite seems comfortable being the main man on offense, but at the same time, as demonstrated by the incident with Stattmann, it seems like he's frustrated at times as he carries a large load on both ends of the floor.

Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg question, but one thing I've always noticed about teams that challenge and/or beat the Cavaliers: It looks like they want to be on the court. Oftentimes, opposing players look like they'd rather be arguing with their girlfriends or taking exams (well, except North Carolina players on that second one) instead of facing the 'Hoos, especially at JPJ. But the ones that do well look enthusiastic and pumped to be there. That's how South Carolina looked. At one point, ESPN's Jay Bilas said the Gamecocks were showing a great "competitive spirit" with the way they were battling. They got out to a double-digit lead in the first half, controlled the action throughout, and answered every Virginia run and then some.

There's no doubt that teams see that one of the kings of the sport is a bit weaker this year. That, combined with the fact that playing the defending champion probably gives teams extra juice already, could be causing players to look forward to facing the Cavaliers this season. It's a double blow: a chance to knock off the champs AND it's easier to do so. In turn, teams are more confident, and it might show in the stats. The Gamecocks shot 55.1 percent from the field.

Analysts are fond of saying playing Virginia is like a trip to the dentist; Bilas used that analogy Sunday. In some ways, that's still the case. Bennett's system year in and year out will be tough on teams. But normally, that trip to the dentist is the like the one you had as a kid with your parents: the lighting was bad, there were no good magazines in the waiting room (don't even ask about a TV), the office was from the 1970s, the equipment from the dark ages, and the dentist was an older man with whom you had nothing in common. There was nothing to look forward to.

This year, the trip to the dentist is more palatable: the office is modern, there are games and Netflix available in the waiting room, the cleaning methods and hygienist's demeanor are more more gentle, the dentist is in his 30s and more relatable, and you get a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie when you leave. It's not a Sunday walk in the park, but not something you dread.

Until the 'Hoos can make more shots, stop turning the ball over and get back to making it an undesirable chore for opponents to face them, teams will continue to relish the opportunity to make a statement and knock off the champs.

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