The situation Virginia faced midway through its top-five tilt Saturday afternoon against Houston wasn’t new or unique.
Similarly to how the Cavaliers trailed nationally-ranked foes Illinois and Baylor at halftime in Las Vegas as well as Michigan at halftime in Ann Arbor earlier this season, the No. 2 Hoos found themselves down at the break against the No. 5 Cougars.
But unlike in meetings with the Illini, Bears and Wolverines, UVa didn’t have the second-half solutions or surge to emerge victoriously over the lengthy and tenaciously defending Cougars, falling 69-61 in front its sold-out home crowd at John Paul Jones Arena.
Cavaliers senior guard Kihei Clark’s steal and runaway layup with about four minutes left pulled UVa within six points of the visitors and brought the navy-and-orange faithful to a deafening stand, but there were no further heroics from the Hoos even after they forced a turnover and had the chance to trim Houston’s advantage to a one-possession contest.
People are also reading…
“We had an in-and-out shot that, a little action we ran to cut it to 3,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “It was a 6-point game and [guard Isaac] McKneely came off, closed the gate and got real a clean look. It rattled in and out and it was right there.”
Said McKneely, the freshman who had nine points in the loss, about the pivotal miss: “I really wish that would’ve fallen because we were on a little run right there and that would’ve cut it to 3, and I’d like to think the outcome would’ve been different if I made that shot.”
During this clash, though, the shots UVa converted in its previous marquee non-league wins, didn’t find the bottom of the net on Saturday.
There was no strong final 20 minutes from usually dependable sixth-man Ben Vander Plas, who was 0-of-7 from the field and 0-of-6 from deep in a no-point performance. He missed four shots in the second half against Houston after tallying nine of his 10 total points at Michigan during the second half, which helped the Hoos rally past the Wolverines last month.
Forward Jayden Gardner wasn’t as consistent with his mid-range jumper as he normally is either. Gardner had 13 points on Saturday, but missed three straight tries from his bread-and-butter distance when the Cougars were beginning to separate through the first 10 minutes of the second stanza. His third consecutive miss came with Houston up 46-35.
For the game, UVa shot 41.7% from the field and 27.3% from 3-point range — down from the 47.2% field-goal rate and 39.6% three-point rate it entered Saturday with.
“Who knows,” what happens if McKneely’s critical try from 3 goes in, Bennett said. “They’re going to make some plays, but I go back to a couple of our defensive lapses.
“They’re little, mini fractures and those cost us,” Bennett said. “The film, I think, will be very valuable to see, ‘Hey look. We’re going to have to go there. You’re going to have to win.’ You can’t say, ‘We’re going to win when our shots are going in.’ You have to win games like this with toughness and soundness mentally. The head and heart have to be connected on the defensive end and not forget that or lose a little focus. That won’t work and that’s a great teaching lesson for us.”
Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said his squad kept the ball moving extremely well on offense, and that finding the open man was the difference in its win against the Hoos compared its loss a week ago to Alabama.
The Cougars racked up 17 assists on their 25 made field goals, and registered assists on the layup and 3-pointer that followed the in-and-out-3-point attempt by McKneely. The 3 by Tramon Mark — one of the five Houston starters to each tally double-figure scoring totals — extended Houston’s lead to 59-50 with 2:30 to go.
“Seventeen assists today,” Sampson said. “I’m not sure we even passed 17 times last Saturday [versus Alabama]. The ball moved.”
Bennett wanted to see better defense.
“Our young men played hard,” Bennett said. “That was going to be there, but today, the tougher, sounder team on the defensive end won the game.”
UVa forward Kadin Shedrick, after scoring a team-best 16 points, said there’s plenty to learn from the Cavaliers’ first loss of the campaign.
“I thought we had a lot of good moments this game,” he said, “but of course, we definitely had our miscues. I had some myself and it just shows that you have to be nearly perfect to beat a really good team.”
About what he and the Hoos will take with them from the high-level matchups — wins over Illinois, Baylor and Michigan and the loss to Houston — during their non-conference slate, Shedrick said, “We can play with anybody in the country. As long as we limit those lapses and run our offensive hard, I think we can play with and beat anybody in the country.
“It was really good to have this challenging non-conference schedule to get us ready for ACC play,” he continued, “and we learned a lot about ourselves, and we’ve got to continue to play hard.”