Thursday, February 02, 2006

State Squeaks By Virginia 66-64

When you are playing a top 25 team on the road, you need skill, determination and luck.

Against 18th-ranked N.C. State the Virginia Cavaliers had a little bit of all three, but not when it mattered most. Sean Singletary was given the ball by C Jason Cain with 3.2 to go after a missed Wolfpack free throw with a chance to win. Coach Dave Leitao had used all his timeouts so it was Singletary who had to run the court and throw up a prayer. The shot was good...but not good enough, allowing N.C. State to defend their homecourt and drop the Cavaliers to 10-8, 4-4 in the ACC. While the loss is certainly demoralizing, 4-4 is an amazing accomplishment already. Nevertheless, it's not time to pack it in and call it a season. Virginia still has 9 games left, 8 conference games and a tournament. This season has turned into more than just avoiding embarrassment, but really making some positive strides. Coach Dave Leitao recognized that after the game, once again proving he saw no such thing as a "morale victory".

"I've said it 100 times. There's nothing pleasing about losing."

The beginning of the game was far from pleasing for Virginia fans. The offense started off badly for the third game in a row. After the 20-2 debacle against Duke, Virginia was behind 20-8 early on and looked to be in trouble.

"We didn't come into this game with a lot of energy but we were able to regain our focus and execute a little bit," Singletary said.

That they did, J.R. Reynolds was able to make some aggressive moves and piece by piece Virginia clawed back in it. The Cavaliers ended the half strongly, cutting a 9-point deficit to 3 trailing 29-26 at the break. The second half was a tug and war of momentum. Virginia would come close but the Wolfpack would answer. Finally, late in the game, Virginia took its first lead 53-52 with 7:44 to go. At 61-57 Virginia had its biggest lead and a chance to pull away. The Wolfpack were struggling, but the Cavaliers could not deliver the final blow and that proved critical. Ilian Evitimov and Cameron Bennerman worked to get the Wolfpack the lead at 64-62. Then Engin Atsur, who had played with freshman Mamadi Diane all day was able to get open and make the critical yet wide open lay up.

That lack of defensive execution also came at the front line where Lars Mikalauskas and Tunji Soroye could not contain sophomore center Cedric Simmons. Simmons had 15 points and 3 blocks which complimented Tony Bethel's 16 points and 7 rebounds. When a clutch play was needed, Bethel responded through the game with a big three-pointer or a key rebound.

For Virginia despite some mishaps J.R. Reynolds still had a solid outing with 16 points and 5 assists. Singletary had 13 points and 5 assists, a sub-par game for him that still included Kodak moments of jaw-dropping execution. Mikalauskas despite 4 fouls was able to put up 10 points and Cain had a very good game rebounding 10 rebounds to go with his 7 points. In fact, Virginia had a big margin in the rebounding war, most importantly they had 12 offensive rebounds to 4 for the Wolfpack. Still it was all about execution down the stretch and that is where the Wolfpack shined.

The win takes N.C. State to 17-4, 6-2 in the ACC. They avenged a beat down by Seton Hall last week which was their first home loss of the year. The Wolfpack seem to have locked up an NCAA bid now, but for Virginia it's all about keeping the team together for the stretch run.

Let's be honest, Virginia was not expected to do anything this year. Now that they have, it's hard to just call it a season. Certainly the players don't want to, and neither do the fans. Virginia has proven it has loads of potential and promise but that doesn't make a difference in the win-loss column. The Cavaliers simply do not have room for error if they want some postseason play (NIT or NCAA). Next up are the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, a team that has inexplicably struggled this year without Chris Paul. The Deacons are LAST in the ACC at 1-7. Nevertheless, Virginia cannot look past this team. WF has the talent that can help them beat anybody on a given night, they have just been unable to get everyone to work well in concert. If UVa looks past them as a win, they will most certainly lose (and it's a loss they can ill afford). Win this and Virginia is back above .500 in the ACC and the NIT looks like a great possibility. Lose this game and Virginia is reeling with 3 straight losses and a road game at Maryland on the horizon. The season may not end be on the line this Saturday, but the Cavaliers need to play like it is.


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