Cavaliers Avoid Catastrophe, Hold Off Clawing Panthers

Game Highlights

Virginia appeared to be well on its way to a second straight double-digit win Saturday at Pittsburgh when disaster nearly struck, turning what was supposed to be a leisurely and celebratory final few minutes into a harrowing experience.

But the Cavaliers survived and learned their lesson after a 59-56 victory rather than an NCAA tournament-resume-damaging setback. They have won four consecutive games and seven of eight.

“If you’re going to give up transition baskets and give up a bunch of second-chance points, and we had a foolish foul or two at the end of the shot clock, I just thought we gave up some rebounds, and those are points you just can’t do that often," Tony Bennett said. "We played well enough to spot the lead and overcome some of those mistakes, but that’s certainly growing and learning material."

Pittsburgh had 10 offensive rebounds, seven fast-break points and five second-chance points, though Virginia's rebounding seemed to be better in the second half.

UVa (19-7, 11-5) led by 14 points with 5:18 left before the Panthers (15-13, 6-11) began whittling away at the margin. At the 3:26 mark, Terrell Brown made a layup as he got fouled by Casey Morsell and made the free throw. Then, Kihei Clark made an errant pass out of a trap, which was stolen by Xavier Johnson, who passed to Trey McGowens for a 3-pointer. In an instant, the cushion went from 13 to seven.

Still, the 'Hoos were able to steady things and were up nine with 2:41 remaining. After that, though, they went 0 for 3 from the field, Clark had the ball stolen from behind by Johnson, and they committed two more and-one fouls, one by Clark -- right after the second turnover I mentioned above, compounding his mistake -- and one by Key. Whether you agreed or disagreed with the foul calls, and there were certainly reasons to be upset at the officials in this game, the Cavaliers put themselves in a bad position. If they had been more careful with the ball and made better decisions, the last minute would not have raised the blood pressure of Wahoos fans as much as it did.

The only points UVa mustered in the final two minutes came on one free throw by Key. The senior went 2 for 4 from the line, with both misses coming in the last 3:51. The other players made all of their freebies, so the team was a very solid 11 of 13, but those late misfires were almost deadly. Late missed free throws have been a troubling recurring theme this season, even though the team is not terrible from the stripe overall, sitting at 71.1 percent (156th nationally).

Luckily, Pittsburgh seemed to overthink the final sequence. The Panthers thrive on getting into the lane and drawing fouls, not shooting 3-pointers. But down 58-56, Justin Champagnie drove across the lane and found McGowens on the wing. He took a difficult step-back 3 that clanged off the rim. If I was Champagnie, with momentum on my side and the referees willing to blow their whistles, I would've gone right to the rim aggressively and expected a call. And then with four seconds remaining after Key went 1 for 2 at the stripe, Pittsburgh couldn't even get a tying shot off as Ryan Murphy's 3 didn't leave his hands in time.

Key capped Virginia's final bone-headed stretch by goaltending on the shot, even though time had expired and it wasn't a violation. It was pretty clear that the ball was still in Murphy's hands as the light on the backboard came on, but with the way the end of the game unfolded, I would not have taken the risk. It seemed like a move that was emblematic of the Cavaliers' play during the contest's conclusion, careless and lacking attention to detail.

"I thought Kihei [Clark] played a terrific game, but then he really had some costly turnovers, and he’s got to sharpen up on that," Bennett said. "You know thankfully, we’re talking about it in a win, but it was just one of those games where we held on enough at the end, made enough free throws."

Clark was one of the main actors in the breakdown, but as Bennett said, the sophomore also played a great game, and indeed Virginia did as well, especially for the majority of the second half. Clark paced the team with 17 points while going 6 of 11 from the field, but he only had three assists (three below his average), and he committed six of Virginia's 16 turnovers (eight in each half). Key (4 for 6), Tomas Woldetensae (4 for 10), and Mamadi Diakite (4 for 8) each had 10 points, and Diakite also collected 10 boards. Despite rumors to the contrary, Morsell did play after rolling his ankle against BC, contributing 25 valuable minutes and seven points on 2-of-5 shooting, including one 3. He's now made 4 of his last 8 3s and is up to a sizzling 17.7 percent on the season. All joking aside, his perimeter defense was important Saturday.

“I thought he defended well, and we needed that, because they are such a guard-dominant team the way they attack off the dribble," Bennett said. "They’re not shooting the ball particularly well, so you had to be able to spread out and keep them out of the paint and then keep them off the glass. So Casey did a good job guarding the ball. I liked what he brought -- not knowing we were going to have him -- so that was a big shot in the arm for our team.”

UVa went 6 of 18 from beyond the arc, with Clark and Tomas making two each, and Jay Huff (five points, five rebounds, three blocks) chipped in one, which was his only field goal (1 for 4). Pitt lived up to its reputation and went 3 of 15. The Cavaliers shot 43.8 percent from the field, and the Panthers finished at 38.6 percent. Despite the late fouls called on Virginia, Pitt only had 14 free throw attempts, well below their average, and made nine.

Johnson (6 for 10) and Au'Diese Toney (6 for 8) led Pitt with 16 and 13 points, respectively, and Johnson added six steals. McGowens only had eight points on a 3-for-9 performance, and leading scorer Champagnie, a freshman, got his introduction to the Pack-Line and struggled accordingly, with nine points on 4-of-12 shooting as Diakite did an admirable job locking him down. 

Virginia held the edge throughout most of the first half, led 31-29 at the break, and outscored Pitt 22-10 in the second half until things went awry.

"So that was disappointing how we finished, but it doesn’t take away the victory, and I thought we responded in the second half with better team defense and better defensive rebounding and taking care of the ball until [their run]," Bennett said.

Again, like the victory over Boston College, the effort didn't do much to boost Virginia's Big Dance chances, although it did qualify as a Quadrant 2 win. The 'Hoos coasted to the finish line versus the Eagles, but this game was a valuable reminder in teaching the guys to never let their guard down and always expect their opponent to fight until the final buzzer sounds, no matter the score.

I'm sure Bennett will harp on their mistakes, but it sure is better to be able to do that after a W instead of an L.

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