Friday, March 02, 2012
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Cavaliers hanging on to NCAA bubble

CHARLOTTESVILLE - In the end zone seats, the band members quietly gathered their instruments and music stands for the last time at John Paul Jones Arena this season.

"You can tune into the postgame show on ... " the public address announcer said, as if anybody had the stomach to do that. "Full highlights of tonight's game can be found on ... "

No thanks.

Students picked up their goofy contraptions designed to distract opponents when they shoot free throws and hauled them toward the concourse. A female fan walked slowly up the stands with a senior night sign under her arm that read, simply: "THANKS."

Scattered throughout the arena, middle-aged men lounged in their seats in stunned silence, hands on their foreheads or draped over the adjacent chairs.

"Thank you for your support of Virginia basketball throughout this season," the PA announcer said. "Please drive home safely."

This is what Bubble Land looks like. Sounds like. Feels like. The Virginia Cavaliers are not out of the NCAA tournament after their 63-60 loss to Florida State on Thursday, but does anybody feel safe saying they're in?

Coach Tony Bennett sure doesn't.

"I can't tell you what exactly is required for us, where we're at in terms of that," Bennett said. "I know we've got to play well. We're capable of it. We're down to a seven-man rotation as of now, so that puts a lot of stress on us to play so hard and last as long as we can."

ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi had UVa as a No. 8 seed coming into this week. The Cavaliers' standing in the RPI, according to ncaa.com, was 38th heading into this game. The bubble isn't particularly imposing this year, as Lunardi has teams such as BYU (No. 49 RPI) and Mississippi State (No. 65) making the tournament.

All of that's good news for UVa. But with each near miss against quality teams, with each new player who goes down with an injury, the Cavs drop further into the realm of the uncomfortable.

What stings so much about this one is that the Cavs had it won.

Well, more accurately, they had it lost, then won, then lost again.

UVa's nine-point deficit at halftime felt almost insurmountable. Its 11-point lead with 4:33 remaining felt like more than enough.

Then it wasn't. Turnovers and missed opportunities by the Cavaliers and big shots by Seminoles had UVa leaving the court with a sick feeling.

"It wasn't like our defense collapsed," point guard Jontel Evans said. "They just made tough shot after tough shot after tough shot."

For Evans, the only sensation comparable to this collapse was the one he felt at the end of last season, when the Cavaliers blew a big lead in the final minute and lost to Miami in the ACC Tournament.

"I was just thinking about that in the locker room," Evans said. "Similar feeling. Just let it get away from us."

The Miami loss was worse. That wound up being the final game UVa played last season. The Cavaliers still have at least two more to go this time. First they'll travel to Maryland on Sunday - a very winnable game - and then head to next week's ACC Tournament in Atlanta, where any matchup they draw will be against an opponent they've competed well against at least once.

The Cavaliers hung tight with Duke on the road and against UNC at home. They battled FSU in one-possession games in Tallahassee and Charlottesville. They know they can joust.

The fact that they couldn't quite win any of those games, though, puts them under pressure like never before - and with fewer bodies to try to overcome it. Malcolm Brogdon's injury leaves Bennett with only seven healthy players he trusts. These guys might win, but they'll be winded.

That's the bubble for you. We'll see if they can drive home safely.

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