The Eagles, for instance, are 167th in the NCAA Net rankings yet limited Virginia to its fewest points of the season. Jayden Gardner scored 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting, but the rest of the starters combined to go 10 for 36 (27.8 percent) from the field, and none had more than seven points.
“We have to learn from that because of what we have coming up,” Coach Tony Bennett told reporters following the loss. “They put themselves in a great spot, I told them, but in that game at times it looked like we were on our heels at both ends of the floor, and you won’t win at this stage of the year against teams that are playing tough like that.”
After of their first Quadrant 3 loss this season, the Cavaliers (21-5, 13-4 ACC) have two full days of practice to try to correct their deficiencies, particularly on offense, before facing North Carolina (17-11, 9-8) on Saturday night in their last regular season road game.
Virginia averaged 0.8 points per possession against the Eagles, who are yielding nearly 70 points per game and came in with a 7-10 record in the ACC. It shot just 19 for 59 (32.2 percent), including 4 for 21 on three-pointers, against an opponent with a field goal percentage defense of 44.1, 10th in the ACC.
The Cavaliers fared nearly as poorly Saturday against visiting Notre Dame, which ranks second to last in the conference in field goal percentage defense (46 percent). Virginia shot just 36.5 percent in that game but won, 57-55, when Dane Goodwin missed an open three-pointer at the buzzer.
Kihei Clark, a fifth-year guard, was the only Cavaliers player to shoot above 50 percent, scoring 15 points on 4-for-7 shooting from the field. The rest of the team combined to go 15 for 45 (33.3 percent), with guard Reece Beekman shooting 4 for 12 and guard Armaan Franklin 4 for 11.
“Teams are scouting and seeing Virginia is not going to score a million points,” said Luke Hancock, an analyst for the ACC Network and former player at Louisville. “They’re not going to score 78 if we find a way to not let them shoot a high clip from the three-point line and play one-on-one basketball in the post with Jayden Gardner. The offense is not looking very fluid.”
The scoring maladies initially surfaced Feb. 15 at Louisville, which is tied with the Fighting Irish for the worst record in the ACC (2-15). Virginia survived, 61-58, despite shooting 44.2 percent and going 9 for 16 on free throws.
The Cardinals are second to last in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing nearly 76 points per game. Still, Virginia labored to reach its point total; Beekman missed all six of his field goal attempts, and Ben Vander Plas needed 11 shots to score 10 points.
Vander Plas played a major role when Virginia won 11 of 12 games after Bennett went to a smaller lineup. The 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Ohio University became the starting center, joining the 6-6 Gardner in the frontcourt with Clark, Beekman and Franklin in the backcourt.
But Vander Plas went 5 for 17 (29.4 percent) from behind the arc during the past three games, allowing opponents to devote resources elsewhere on defense. In four seasons with the Bobcats, Vander Plas shot 209 for 643 (32.5 percent) on three-pointers.
“If they want to play small ball, Ben Vander Plas needs to be that mismatch,” Hancock said. “He needs to be a guy that brings other bigs away from the basket, that forces you to play him tight out on the perimeter, or else it all kind of falls apart because he doesn’t give you quite enough at 4½, five rebounds to just make it work if he’s not knocking down shots.”
Vander Plas started playing center regularly in the Cavaliers’ first meeting with North Carolina on Jan. 10 Virginia won, 65-58, at John Paul Jones Arena after the Tar Heels’ Armando Bacot, a 6-11 all-ACC big man, left the game early in the first half with a right leg ailment.
A sweep of North Carolina in the regular season still probably would leave the Cavaliers chasing Miami, which plays reeling Florida State on Saturday, for first place in the ACC. Virginia loses the head-to-head tiebreaker to Miami as well as to Pittsburgh, which is tied for second place with Virginia, a half-game behind Miami.
The top four finishers in the regular season earn a double bye into the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament that begins March 7 at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.