KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Joe Harris’ face told the story of the game.
When the Virginia star showed up for interviews after the Cavaliers were pummeled 87-52 by host Tennessee on Monday night, Harris looked shell-shocked, embarrassed, humbled. Choose your own adjective, but it wasn’t good.
A few minutes prior, Harris’ coach, Tony Bennett, looked the same. Bennett’s expression was almost disbelief that his team was beaten so soundly.
Bennett and his Cavaliers came to Big Orange Country hoping to find some answers to why they haven’t gotten out of the blocks quite the way as expected. Instead, they left Knoxville with more questions than answers, their self-respect in doubt.
In fact, Bennett believed his team was ready for the road challenge against a team that was predicted to finish third in the SEC. Virginia had enjoyed three straight solid practices before the trip and the Cavaliers felt confident facing the Vols, which entered the game with a 7-4 record, had lost to N.C. State. UVa had beaten Tennessee in Charlottesville a year ago by a 46-38 count, a game in which the Cavaliers had controlled the pace from wire-to-wire.
Not Monday night.
The Vols jumped all over the visiting Wahoos from the get-go and never let off the gas. Tennessee’s 48 points at halftime (48-26) were the most Virginia had surrendered in a first half in 118 games, dating back to 2010 when UVa gave up 55 to Washington.
It didn’t really get any better in the second half as the Vols cruised to a 35-point win, the largest during the Cuonzo Martin era and the most lopsided loss by a Virginia team since a 106-63 collapse against that same Washington team in the 2010 Maui Invitational.
Bennett didn’t give his team a chewing at the half, choosing rather to give the Cavaliers a reality check.
“Who are you?” Bennett asked the Cavaliers. “We’ve got to determine who we are.”
Apparently his players couldn’t give him the answer he was looking for and paid the price. Tennessee had racked up more first half points than five Virginia opponents had scored in entire games this season.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the evening was the Cavaliers' effort or lack of one.
“We were just disjointed,” Bennett said. “We looked slow. We looked tired and delayed in our reactions. It’s hard to beat a team when they’re shooting like that, but [shots] have to at least be contested and they weren’t, and that was discouraging.”
The Virginia coach expected a tough, physical game from the Volunteers and welcomed it. He believed his team was physical enough to take on just about anyone.
On this night, the Cavaliers were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They ran into a red-hot Tennessee team that had not played anywhere near that caliber of basketball this season. Virginia offered little, if any resistance.
When Tennessee got physical, Virginia looked like it was ready to get back on the bus.
“We knew how physical they were,” Bennett said. “It was like Tennessee drew a line in the sand and dared us to cross it. It looked like we were stuck in mud.”
Virginia has struggled all season in trying to find its identity. Bennett has tried five different starting lineups, every player combination thinkable. He’s played 10 guys.
But this team just hasn’t responded the way everyone expected it to when the Cavaliers were picked to finish fourth in the ACC in preseason polls. Standing at 9-4 heading into ACC play, Virginia is looking very shaky.
It seemed that Martin had struggled a bit with his team’s depth up until Monday night, was searching for an identity. Well, the Vols found it.
A total of 79 of Tennessee’s 82 points came from its starters. Meanwhile, 28 of UVa’s 48 came from its bench.
Tempo was a huge deal and there was no question that the Vols forced their will on Virginia, which didn’t respond.
“We knew they liked to play slow and we’re trying to play faster,” said Tennessee’s Jordan McRae, who led all scorers with 21 points and was part of a Big Orange net-blistering shooting performance (50 percent from the field, 61.1 percent from Bonusphere, 11-for-18). We thought that would be a problem for [Virginia]. We haven’t played this fast in a while.”
The Cavaliers had no answers.
“We just got out-played, out-toughed, our-worked,” said All-ACC guard Harris, who finished with seven points (2-for-9). “It was really embarrassing. We know we’re better than what we showed. That’s why it stings.”
Virginia’s players credited Tennessee for the Vols’ complete domination in the game. Still, all of the Cavaliers’ warts have been exposed heading into ACC play with little time for Bennett and his coaching staff to put a bandage on all the problems.
“We’re not going to win many games in the ACC if we’re not going to answer the [physical] bell,” Bennett said.
Especially in the new ACC, where former Big East influences have brought a potential tougher brand of basketball to the league.