If Shane Larkin hits a runner in traffic, fine. Same if Kenny Kadji slingshots in a contested 3-pointer, or Reggie Johnson burrows through a low-post trap to muscle in a bank shot.
But allowing Johnson an uncontested layup? And throwing away the ensuing inbounds pass?
That’s not how an NCAA tournament aspirant rolls in the last 10 seconds.
But so transpired Virginia’s nightmarish final sequence Tuesday at Miami, where the Cavaliers lost the game, 54-50, and an opportunity to leave an indelible impression on the NCAA selection committee.
Imagine Virginia’s resume had it won. A victory at Wisconsin, where Michigan State is the only other opponent to survive; and an upset at Miami, where the Hurricanes are 12-0 and had waxed their last four visitors, Duke and North Carolina included, by 20-plus points.
Barring complete meltdown over the next few weeks, that might have been enough to squeeze the Cavaliers into the bracket, strength-of-schedule issues notwithstanding.
All this seemed possible when freshman Evan Nolte, with the aid of a very forgiving rim, made a 3-pointer off an inbounds play to forge a 50-all tie with 14.3 seconds remaining. Virginia missed nine of its first 10 threes, but Nolte’s was the fourth make in the last five attempts. The Cavs were closing strong.
But as Larkin, Miami’s invaluable sophomore point guard, curled off a high ball screen, Virginia’s Akil Mitchell hedged toward the top of the key, where Kadji was spotting up. That left Johnson all alone under the basket.
Johnson gathered Larkin’s pass and converted the layup. A panicked Paul Jesperson then tossed away the inbounds pass to Durand Scott, whose two free throws iced it.
“To give up an easy one stings without a doubt,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett told Ted Jeffries on his postgame radio show.
Especially since the defensive lapse was uncharacteristic for this bunch.
Bennett noted his team’s resilience, and without question, Virginia (18-8, 8-5 ACC) was far tougher Tuesday than in Saturday’s loss at North Carolina. But second-ranked Miami (22-3, 13-0) is better than UNC, and the Cavaliers needed more than toughness to beat them.
With superior athletes at most positions -- Kadji, Johnson, Larkin and Julian Gamble were difficult matchups – the Hurricanes shot a solid 47 percent and committed a reasonable eight turnovers. Virginia stayed even on the boards but was doomed by 39-percent shooting.
Larkin and Cavaliers wing Joe Harris, two locks for first-team All-ACC, played like it. Harris scored a game-high 16 points and added seven rebounds; Larkin had 11 points, six assists and one turnover.
"He's unreal," Miami coach Jim Larranaga told ESPNU after its telecast. "He's just the best."
Miami’s length and athleticism was evident early when Gamble blocked three Mitchell shots on one possession. The Cavaliers’ only healthy post player, Mitchell scored a season-low six points.
Virginia entered the game on the most efficient and productive offensive roll of Bennett’s four seasons, having scored 70-plus points in four consecutive outings. The Hurricanes had allowed 70-plus points only twice in 24 games, and only one of their opponents, North Carolina State, had shot better than 50 percent.
The Cavaliers have lost 21 consecutive games against top-five opponents since a 2002 victory over No. 3 Duke. Virginia has not defeated a top-five team on the road since upsetting the third-ranked Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1993.
With the Miami test complete and a visit from No. 6 Duke ahead next Thursday, some will view Georgia Tech on Sunday as a classic trap game for Virginia.
I think it’s the ideal bridge between the Hurricanes and Blue Devils.
First, it’s at home, where the Cavaliers have won 14 straight since a mid-November stumble against Delaware. Second, it’s against an opponent that Virginia should beat, and must to remain a viable NCAA contender.
But contrary to so-called trap games, the Cavaliers certainly shouldn’t overlook the Yellow Jackets (14-11, 4-9). Not after what transpired on Super Bowl Sunday in Atlanta.
Leading by nine points after shooting 51.9 percent in the first half, Virginia went more than nine minutes without a field goal late in the second half. The Cavaliers failed to score on 13 of their final 14 possessions, giftwrapping a 66-60 Georgia Tech victory.
If atoning for that collapse doesn’t hold the Cavaliers’ attention, shame on them.
“We’ll take tomorrow off,” Bennett said on radio, “and get back after it.”
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