Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Cavs end up as Gator bait

OMAHA, Neb. - You know it's bad when the crowd stops paying attention to what's going on right in front of them and instead becomes fixated on a game being played a thousand miles away.

You know it's a mess when the losing team runs off the final 15 seconds of the clock without even considering attempting a shot, so intense is the desire for it all to end.

You know it's a fiasco when a special season - a testimony to holding things together, exceeding expectations and breaking a four-year NCAA tournament drought - feels like it happened last century.

Final score: Florida 71, Virginia 45.

You know that's bad.

So do the Cavs.

"We haven't been beat like that all season," sophomore guard Joe Harris said. "They got us down, and then they kept us down. They weren't letting us up."

Pretty much.

We could analyze the specific tactical and athletic battles lost, but what would be the point? This was a thorough beatdown, the third-largest margin of victory ever for an NCAA tournament game between the 7th and 10th seeds.

In sum: The Gators were better in the post. They were better on the perimeter. They pressed UVa into mistakes.

They were superior on the glass and off the bench and probably in their choice of locker room music, too.

"Their guards were getting into the paint at will, which is really disappointing," UVa point guard Jontel Evans said. "Especially my defensive performance. [Erving] Walker's a great player, I take my hat off to him, but he touched the paint too many times. I'm too good of a defender to let that happen."

Admirable accountability, Jontel, but no need to single yourself out. This was a total team dud, from Sammy Zeglinski shooting 3-for-11 to Harris going 2-for-9 to the two bench players giving the Cavs zippo.

And yeah, this might be a good time to remember that UVa only had two bench players. Both are freshmen. One wasn't even supposed to play this year, and he saw 19 minutes in this one.

The pressing-and-trapping Gators, meanwhile, had three bench players go more than 10 minutes, including one (Casey Prather) who scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting.

That's a good reminder that the Cavs did a remarkable job just to get in this event.

Friday, though, wasn't a day UVa could reflect on that too much. The Cavs were too busy thinking about the way it ended, particularly for Zeglinski and fabulous fifth-year senior Mike Scott.

"The thing I'm disappointed about is that we had to let Sam and Mike go out like this," Harris said. "It was a terrible feeling coming into the locker room and knowing this is the last college game of their career. For us to not put up more of a fight for them and not going down swinging รข? "

Harris paused and shook his head.

"It was an accomplishment to get here," he said, "but that's not how you want it to end."

Then again, neither was last year. That UVa team suffered a stunner of a different sort, blowing a big lead in the final minute to lose to Miami in the ACC Tournament. With no NCAA tournament or NIT bid to mitigate the pain, the loss stayed fresh throughout the offseason.

Many times this year, UVa's players mentioned that loss as a springboard to a more determined team. In Zeglinski's words, the Cavs took more of a mature, professional approach to preparation after experiencing that heartbreak.

That's the hope here, too -- that the margin of defeat in this NCAA tournament appearance will keep the Cavs grounded as they continue to try to build this program. Coach Tony Bennett must continue to recruit better players and keep them engaged. Evans and Harris must continue to take another step up in their leadership off this team.

You know Friday was bad. But mostly because you've seen the alternative: the rest of a season that was so good.

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