Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: McFarling: Signature ACC victory again eludes Cavaliers

CHARLOTTESVILLE - The last basket of Saturday's game shouldn't have been so easy. There should have been a challenge, a collision, a spectacle.

And Mike Scott wanted one. Oh, how he wanted one.

North Carolina 7-footer Tyler Zeller was thundering down the lane, and Scott was down low on the baseline in position to leave his man to help.

Maybe he could block the shot. At the very least, he could foul Zeller and make the big man earn it at the line.

Scott's heart told him to do it.

His head said no.

"I was thinking about that foul," Scott said.

Saddled with four already and determined not to be disqualified, Scott became a spectator. And Zeller threw down an easy dunk with 13 seconds left to punctuate No. 7 UNC's 54-51 victory over No. 25 Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena.

Right now, this UVa team is a lot like Scott was at that moment: eager to accomplish just a little bit more, but unable to achieve it for whatever reason. Saturday's loss dropped the Cavaliers to 1-4 against ranked opponents, with three of the defeats coming by only three points.

With No. 15 Florida State coming to town Thursday, UVa has only one chance left to get that signature ACC victory in the regular season.

"We've got to beat top teams," Scott said. "We got swept by UNC. We lost to Florida State. We lost to Duke. Those are top teams, and we've definitely got to get a win against them."

That's not to say the Cavaliers don't have plenty of reasons for pride. They do. They're 21-7 overall, 8-6 in the ACC, and better than the sum of their parts, particularly without Assane Sene in there to challenge the elite post players in the league.

By almost any reasonable measure, the Cavs should not have been competitive in this one. Their best player spent almost half the game on the bench. Two of their other forwards also battled foul trouble against UNC's imposing frontcourt.

They shot poorly from 3-point range. They got killed on the boards.

Yet there UVa was, in a one-possession game with the preseason favorite to win the national championship. It's a Tar Heels team loaded with NBA talent, a squad that had beaten the Cavs by 18 points in Chapel Hill two weeks ago.

Not that keeping it close made UVa feel better.

"I probably feel worse," guard Sammy Zeglinski said. "Just because we know we had a chance to win it. We just didn't get it done."

There was a bottom-line sentiment here on Saturday. After all, February is not the time for NCAA tournament teams to score moral victories. The urgency of this game was encapsulated by UVa coach Tony Bennett, who was about as animated as he ever gets after Scott picked up his fourth foul on a questionable loose-ball call.

The good news for the Cavs is that Joe Harris' fractured left hand is becoming less and less of an issue. He emphatically blocked a shot with the wrapped paw in the first half and later drove to the basket and finished with the left hand.

"It's getting better every week," Harris said. "I'm able to take some painkillers and stuff before the game, so I don't really feel a whole lot."

They all felt a little numb after this one, but they're still confident that marquee conference win is coming Thursday.

"I think we're going to get it," forward Darion Atkins said. "Coach always says that there's something there; we've just got to find it, grab it and use it."

But do they know what that thing is?

"Not necessarily," Atkins said with a smile. "But once it shows itself, or somebody finds it, we're all going to use it. We're going to go with it and try to get the W."

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