Virginia’s late-game woes are no secret.
The Cavaliers (12-6, 4-4 ACC) have been outscored 54-26 in the final five minutes of their four ACC losses. That’s an average point differential of -7 in the final five minutes of each game. If the Cavaliers played at that pace for a 40-minute game, they’d lose by 56.
The late-game struggles, which come after the Cavaliers started the season 4-0 in games decided by single digits, worry fans. The Cavaliers won the national championship last season with an incredibly clutch run through the NCAA Tournament. They turned win probability charts upside down after pulling out games that seemed out of reach with clutch shot after clutch shot. Now, they continue to falter down the stretch.
Virginia did, however, pick up a five-point road win at Georgia Tech on Saturday. The inexperienced Cavaliers played the Yellow Jackets to a 10-10 tie in the final five minutes.
“Confidence is something that you have to earn,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “I thought they did a good job against Georgia Tech to hold on and win. It challenges you. That’s our job as coaches. It’s just to stay together and keep working and not be distracted.”
A deep dive into the numbers reveals that some good fortunes could be in store, however. In the final five minutes of those four ACC letdowns, Virginia opponents are shooting 57.7% and an insane 71.4% from 3-point range. Maybe most incredibly, they’ve committed zero turnovers.
Boston College didn’t commit a turnover in the final 6:48. Syracuse ended the game without turning the ball over for 9:07. Florida State’s last turnover came at the 8:28 mark, and N.C. State committed its final turnover with 5:07 on the clock.
Virginia ranks second nationally in defensive efficiency, but offenses have caught fire in the final five minutes of UVa’s ACC defeats.
While it’s anecdotal evidence, the ESPN headlines on the first video highlight of each loss should give Virginia fans hope.
“Bryce’s tough jump shot propels N.C. State vs. Virginia.”
“FSU’s Vassell hits clutch 3-pointer from the corner.”
“Boeheim beats the clock with a wild shot.”
“Hamilton’s 3 seals BC’s win over No. 18 Virginia.”
There’s no denying that the Cavaliers miss shots and turn the ball over down the stretch. Virginia shot 26.9% from the floor and 25% from 3-point range in its four ACC losses. On the other hand, UVa’s opponents performed wildly above their normal play in the final five minutes.
Syracuse went 5-of-6 from beyond the arc and buried ridiculous shots, including a heave from Buddy Boeheim at the end of the shot clock, to earn an overtime win.
“Well, they hit three 3’s on the first three possessions,” Jay Huff said after the loss to Syracuse. “That’s tough to come back from. I mean a lot of it was that they made shots and we didn’t. We had a few costly turnovers and our shots weren’t falling.”
Florida State missed plenty of shots but hit two clutch 3-pointers late. N.C. State went 4-of-5 from the field in the final five minutes, and Boston College went 3-of-6.
Outside of the final five minutes of those four games, the teams shot 31.7% from the field and 26.8% from 3-point range against the Pack Line defense. That’s much closer to Virginia’s defensive averages for the season.
The Cavaliers ranked second nationally as of Tuesday morning in field-goal percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot only 35% from the field. Teams only shoot 28.5% from beyond the arc against UVa.
The final five minutes of Virginia’s four recent losses make little sense, but possible explanations include an increased focus of opponents, fatigue and bad luck. In each loss, the Cavaliers needed to work hard to erase a second-half deficit before taking the lead into the final five minutes.
Could the effort needed to come back and an increased level of intensity from the opponent be the cause of these heartbreaking defeats?
It’s hard to know exactly why the Cavaliers’ opponents are performing so much better in the final possessions, but it’s also fair to expect a regression to the mean. Watching the final possessions again reveals solid defense from the Cavaliers, but opponents making contested shots.
Given Virginia’s anemic offense, the Cavaliers rarely blow out quality opponents. With games coming down to the final minutes, making a clutch shot or two can often be the difference between winning and losing.
The Cavaliers often find themselves on the wrong side of those clutch shots.
“This league is who is ready and right has a chance to win, and we know our margin for error is smaller than it has usually been,” Bennett said. “What else can you say? It’s kind of the same message: keep your head up and let’s keep working.”