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Cavaliers Continue To Come Up Short In Clutch

Game Highlights

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For much of Wednesday's game at No. 9 Florida State, the Wahoos had the Seminoles on the ropes.

The end of both halves were a different story.

FSU ended the first half on an 11-0 run over the final 3:45 and finished the game on a 10-3 run over the last 2:27. UVa dropped its third straight contest, 54-50, its longest losing streak since February 2017, when it lost four consecutive. It has already lost as many ACC games this season as it did in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons combined. Florida State has won two in a row in the series and four of the past six.

Like the Boston College and Syracuse defeats, the Cavaliers held a lead in the second half. This one may have been the most painful, though, because of the three setbacks, this was the one in which UVa was in the lead the latest. Up 46-44 with 3:11 left, Mamadi Diakite went to the line to try to put the team up by more than a basket. He only made 1 of 2. After a missed 3-pointer, though, the 'Hoos had another chance to extend the margin, but Braxton Key's layup was blocked by Trent Forrest. On the other end, Anthony Polite hit a corner 3, and the game was tied.

Then came the offensive foul on Kihei Clark when he was called for, I guess, a moving screen after handing the ball off to Tomas Woldetensae. It was a very questionable foul to say the least, as Clark's momentum simply carried him into the defender, who then grabbed his hip after a moment of very little contact between the two. The announcers even made it a point to debate what had just transpired. But I'm not sure it mattered, because Woldetensae missed his 3. You could argue, though, that Woldetensae was distracted by the whistle, and that would be valid. He was the best shooter on another cold night for the 'Hoos. But either way, it wasn't a clear call at all, and the referees were rough all night. One time, a Diakite shot hit the rim, UVa got the rebound, the clock didn't reset, and they gave the ball to FSU after a shot clock violation. It took the officials a whole timeout to correct course and give the ball back to Virginia.

Following the Clark foul, two free throws by Forrest put FSU up, 49-47. But Virginia still had chances to tie or win. On the next possession, Woldetensae could not get the ball across halfcourt in time, and UVa was called for 10 seconds. He chastised Diakite for setting a screen at midcourt rather than becoming a passing option. The 'Hoos played good defense following the violation, but Diakite was called for a foul on Forrest. But he missed the front end of a one-and-one. On the next trip down for the offense, Clark tried to pass the ball down low to Diakite and was way off. The Seminoles stole the ball and eventually, Devin Vassell finished UVa off with a 3 to make it 52-47.

This team is simply struggling to close games and is making gaffes at all the wrong times. Clark had eight points and five assists but NINE turnovers. At the seven-minute mark in the first half, Clark ran down the court without numbers, let up, but got trapped on the sideline. He tried to throw a pass, which was intercepted, and Vassell finished the possession with a dunk. Those kinds of plays are magnified in a close game, and Clark just made too many of those mistakes.

"He feels it. I know he does," Bennett said of the sophomore. "He wants to win. He's gotta do a whole lot for us to win and tonight, he had some tough moments, and he had some good moments."

Virginia committed 18 turnovers, including six on the final six possessions of the first half, which helped fuel FSU's closing run on that side of the break. Given the fact that the Cavaliers turned it over that much and made zero 3s in the first half, they were probably lucky to be down just 31-24 at the half.

"I really challenged our guys to be attack-oriented and aggressive offensively because of how good Florida State's defensive pressure is and their ability to switch -- on ball, off ball, overplay -- so we tried to open up the court and get to the lane," Tony Bennett said. "I thought our guys had, for the most part, definitely the right mentality. Same thing defensively. They didn't lay down. They fought. And I said now the next step is, you gotta season it with a little more discipline and a little more soundness."

Diakite was UVa's only double-digit scorer with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and he added six rebounds and two blocks. But he wasn't immune from drawing Bennett's ire. In the first half, Diakite missed a defensive assignment, FSU scored because of it, and Bennett was screaming at Diakite at the timeout. Diakite also missed the free throw late that allowed the 'Noles to tie the game with a 3. Bennett was especially lively during the entire game, getting on his players and the refs. I'm sure he feels like he needs to be a little more animated to jump-start his languishing team, and it's too bad it didn't pay off in the form of a big road win.

Key had nine points but again did nothing from beyond the arc, going 0 for 4. He went 1 for 2 from the line, and his miss was fairly significant, like Diakite's, as it would've given UVa a 36-35 lead with 13 minutes left. He instead just tied the game. Obviously, on its own, it's not a big deal to make 1 of 2 at the line. But it becomes more significant in tight contests, and it came at a time when UVa could've stolen just a little more momentum by grabbing the lead right there instead of needing to wait for a Clark jumper at the 11:30 mark to do so. On the next possession, FSU tied it up again. So had Key made both free throws, Clark's shot would've given UVa a three-point lead. These small details that don't go UVa's way are having a snowball effect when games come down to one or two buckets.

Woldetensae matched Key with nine points, going 3 for 4 from beyond the arc, the only treys the 'Hoos converted, as they went 3 for 15. His first banked in, which was about the only way it looked like Virginia was going to make one for a while.

His second one was a great answer to make it 44-42 FSU after the 'Noles had taken a five-point lead. The junior college transfer's final 3 came from deep with heavy pressure right in his face to cut the lead to 52-50 with just seconds remaining.

Casey Morsell and Jay Huff were the only other Cavaliers to score. Morsell started rather than Huff, and he came up with four points on a couple of nice drives to the rim, one on a great backdoor cut when Clark found him on the baseline, but he also continued to make mistakes, including a layup he got blocked off of the backboard which turned into a 3 for the Seminoles. Morsell only tried two 3s early and badly missed both, so maybe Bennett told him to just look to drive to the hoop. Huff made his only two shots, a layup and a dunk, within two minutes of each other in the first half and got no more attempts. He did lead the team in rebounds with seven, but FSU won the battle on the boards narrowly, 31-29.

Like Syracuse, FSU wasn't great collectively on offense, but all it takes is a couple of breakout players to do well when the other team is struggling to score. Vassell led the 'Noles with 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting (2 of 4 beyond the arc) and added five rebounds, three assists, and a steal. Polite was the big X-factor off the bench, scoring 14 points and making all four of his triples. That's it for double-figure scorers, and in fact, no one else was close. Three other players -- M.J. Walker, Forrest, and Malik Osborne -- had five points each. FSU went 8 of 22 beyond the arc and shot 37 percent from the field, compared to 45.7 percent for UVa. The difference at the stripe was not sizable: The Cavaliers went 5 of 8, and the Seminoles converted 6 of 8.

Virginia got punched in the mouth right out of the gate and found itself down 11-2. The guys didn't wilt, though, and fought back to take the lead 14-12 at the 9:33 mark as the Seminoles went more than eight minutes without a field goal. So I guess we can feel a little good that after falling behind 11-2, UVa outscored FSU the rest of the way, 48-43. That's little solace, though, when taking the L. And the past couple of Virginia teams probably would've taken a bigger lead if given a stretch where the other team didn't make a field goal for eight minutes.

But this is just how the team is playing right now. Offense is tough to come by, and in closing out games, there are no cold-blooded killers. It feels like the team is close to a breakthrough while also feeling far away. To have second-half leads in the past three games and lose all three is discouraging. To not win two, or even just one, is crushing. Hopefully Bennett is able to keep up the confidence of his guys. Right now, they just aren't playing Virginia basketball for consistent stretches. Turnovers are plentiful, and FSU also had some wide open dunks and shots where the defense was suspect at best. The same problems have plagued UVa in all of its close losses going back to South Carolina. When the team needs that key stop or shot, the BIG one or two plays in the biggest moments, the team comes up empty.

"We had a chance ... You look at it and say all right, we will take some of the positives and move on and keep trying to grow," Bennett said. "Sure, our inexperience shows at times, and it's a lot, but they didn't back up in terms of their effort and trying to stay in it where they could've, so we'll build on that."

There's really nothing that can be done right now except for the Cavaliers to just keep grinding. FSU is no slouch. The Seminoles had won six straight and are in the top 10 for a reason. It wasn't going to be an easy game, and we predicted a loss on this site. The players really battled. It just stings when the same mistakes are being made and another close game is lost.

"It takes courage to not get discouraged," Bennett said. "You can't be soft."

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