OMAHA, Neb. — A quizzical look occupied Tony Bennett’s face as the coach’s hands rested on his hips.
Almost 12 minutes remained in Virginia’s brief trip to the NCAA tournament’s second round Friday afternoon. Two waist-high mop boys stared back at Bennett and his salmon-colored tie during the timeout.
No one had answers.
Inside the CenturyLink Center’s quiet sprawl, nothing went right for Bennett and 10th-seed Virginia against seventh-seeded Florida. In an arena where the loudest cheers were saved for updates from hometown Creighton’s game with Alabama, Florida topped Virginia 71-45.
Bennett’s pack-line defense had been the foundation of Virginia’s return to the tournament for the first time in five years and the school’s most regular-season wins since 1983. The group allowed the second-fewest points in the nation, shut down 3-pointers and compensated for Virginia’s lack of depth, with only seven scholarship players available because of injuries and transfers.
All that disintegrated against Florida (24-10) after 10 hopeful minutes.
“We were thoroughly outplayed,” Bennett said. “I think in time the sting will go away and they’ll be thankful for this opportunity, but you saw a team that really took it to us and we did not have an answer.”
Lurking deep in Virginia’s statistics is the number that started Friday’s meltdown. Only 13 Division I schools pulled down fewer offensive rebounds this season than Virginia’s 8.1 per game. And Virginia’s overall rebounding ranked 272nd in the country.
That turned into second chances for Florida after Virginia (22-10) shot out to an early 10-2 lead. During one stretch, five straight Florida baskets came after offensive rebounds. Florida outscored Virginia 12-0 on second-chance baskets and 44-24 in the paint. Virginia managed two — yes, two — offensive rebounds.
Sophomore forward Akil Mitchell, owner of one of Virginia’s two offensive rebounds, believed Florida had more quickness, more energy, more tenacity, more everything. Never mind that Virginia held Florida to 4-for-23 shooting at the 3-point arc.
“Oh, man, that’s really frustrating,” Mitchell said. “This whole game is a poor reflection of what we’ve worked on all year. … That’s not our style of play. It really stings.”
Florida rotated in a stream of fresh players off the bench, allowing it to press well into the second half, attack rebounds and look a step quicker than Virginia. Everything seemed to break down, from transition defense to handling that press to foul trouble. Even do-everything senior Mike Scott fumbled a pass out of bounds from senior Sammy Zeglinski on an uncontested fast break.
Scott, the first-team All-ACC pick, tallied 15 points, but, like Zeglinski, was hampered by foul trouble. And Florida’s defense trapped Scott in the second half, further limiting his offensive contributions. Freshman guard Bradley Beal and sophomore swingman Casey Prather, coming off the bench, each scored 14 points.
“They imposed their will on us,” sophomore Joe Harris said. “They really just wore us down. It’s kind of like what we like to do … Florida almost reversed that on us.”
When Bennett’s hands rested on his hips with a baffled look on his face, the game was long out of hand.
Not long later, Scott and Zeglinski exited the game. They shook hands with each coach and teammate. They hugged. Scott sat down, rubbed his eyes and stared at the floor. Zeglinski untucked his jersey and breathed deeply on the bench.
Then Zeglinski’s eyes shot to the yellow numbers on the clock. The numbers clicked away. And so did Virginia’s tournament.
Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.