A season after winning a national championship, Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers aren’t into moral victories.
The program has earned No. 1 seeds in the past two NCAA Tournaments, and the Cavaliers own a six-year streak of making the Big Dance. Despite winning expectations inside the locker room, there’s reason for fans of the program to feel optimistic after Saturday’s 80-73 loss to No. 5 Louisville.
Virginia looked the part of an NCAA Tournament team Saturday on the road. The Cavaliers erased a 14-point halftime deficit behind a 3-point barrage from Tomas Woldetensae. The junior knocked down seven shots from beyond the arc, including six in the second half.
Kihei Clark added a career-high 23 points to go with Woldetensae’s career-high 27 points. Clark finished with seven assists, and the Cavaliers ended the game with 14 assists to seven turnovers. The passes were crisp, the shots were on target and the offense flowed.
After giving up 44 first-half points, the defense improved in the final 20 minutes. Virginia held Louisville to 36.8% shooting in the second half, and the Cardinals went just 1-of-7 from 3-point land.
For one of the first times all season, both the offense and defense performed exceptionally in the same half.
“They’re just really, really smart and disciplined,” Louisville head coach Chris Mack said. “They’re tough and they do it every possession for the entire game. If you told me we’d score 80 points … I mean at halftime we scored 44 points, and all you keep hearing is like ‘Hey, if you get to 60 against Virginia you can win,’ and I’m saying, ‘We score 16 points in the second half, we’re going to lose.’”
Virginia entered the game squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble despite sitting in fourth place in the ACC. The Cavaliers lacked Quad 1 victories — wins over teams viewed most favorably by the NET rankings — and they lacked Quad 1 opportunities in general. The battle with Louisville became just Virginia’s fifth Quad 1 game of the season, and the Cavaliers are 2-3 in those contests.
A win would’ve gone a long way toward pushing the Cavaliers into the NCAA Tournament. Despite falling short of the goal, Virginia looked good. At times in the second half, the Cavaliers dominated the No. 5 team in the nation on its home court.
“We talked about it, being the best version of themselves,” Bennett said. “They took our message before the game, which was leave this place a better team when we leave. You want to leave it better than you found it in a way, but leave this place a better team.”
The eye test suggests Virginia did that.
The Cavaliers showed resolve and grit when battling back from a 14-point halftime disadvantage. The offense scored a season-high 73 points, and the backcourt performed well. Defensive lapses and quality offense from Louisville ultimately prevented the Cavaliers from winning, but it was a competitive performance.
“There’s still things that we can improve, but you saw a great environment for college basketball,” Bennett said. “We took a step in defeat. I can handle being beat. I just don’t like losing, and we didn’t lose today.”
According to various metrics, the Cavaliers improved their resume even in a loss. Their NET ranking improved from 56th entering Saturday to 51st on Sunday morning. KenPom moved Virginia from No. 54 to No. 52, and the Cavaliers dramatically improved their offensive efficiency ranking, going from 276th nationally prior to Saturday’s game to 227th nationally the morning after the loss.
While the loss total grew to seven, the Cavaliers performed well enough to improve their NCAA Tournament resume. Virginia showed toughness and offensive firepower in an impressive comeback effort.
The top programs in college basketball don’t believe in moral victories, but there were tangible benefits to taking Louisville down to the wire.
“They just kept answering time after time,” Mack said. “But I give our guys credit, you know, you get as many points as we did and then see that lead evaporate as Virginia has done so many times before. I’m sure that was in the back of our guys’ minds, but our resiliency was what was needed. And you’re going to have to do that when you play against Virginia, who, in my opinion, is just getting better and better and better and has the looks of an NCAA Tournament team and it’s not even close.”