Virginia coach Tony Bennett started the season with “TAY” scrawled on his locker-room whiteboard, and his players wore T-shirts bearing the letters.
It was short for “Turnaround Year.”
Yes, it was. But a 71-45 loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament on Friday made the ending sting, especially for seniors Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski.
“The way this ended was hard, but we will learn from it,” Bennett said. “I appreciate what Sammy and Mike stood for, what they contributed to the game. There is no greater thing for a coach to see than young men having the light go on and have them reach a goal as far as getting to the tournament.”
The Cavaliers have improved in each of Bennett's three seasons, going from 16-15 with no postseason tournament a year ago to their first NCAA appearance since 2007.
But the Cavaliers (22-10) and their vaunted defense couldn't stop Florida's penetration and the Gators' unlikely hero, reserve swingman Casey Prather.
Neither could they overcome their 38-percent shooting, including a 3-for-18 afternoon from 3-point range.
Florida also struggled from long distance, making just 4 of 23 after coming into the game with a nation-leading 9.9 3s a game.
“I don't know. Both teams got some good looks, and both teams shot poorly from the 3-point line,” Zeglinski said. “I got some good shots, good rhythm shots. They just didn't go down for me.”
Bradley Beal had 14 points and 11 rebounds, reserve Prather scored a career-high 14 and Florida pulled away in the second half.
The Gators finished the first half on a 17-4 run to shake off a slow start and get out to a 30-22 lead. They shot 70 percent in the second half and pushed their advantage to more than 20 points with 8 minutes left.
The teams' second all-time meeting, and first since the 1992 NIT semifinals, was billed as a clash between Virginia's pack-line defense and Florida's up-tempo perimeter offense.
Florida missed its first 13 shots from behind the arc. No matter. The Gators dominated the offensive glass, with 10 of their first 19 points coming on second chances as they seemingly knifed through Virginia's defense at will for put backs.
Patric Young's beauty of a tip-in on Kenny Boynton's missed jumper got the Gators within two points early -- after they fell behind 10-2 -- and back-to-back put backs by Prather and Beal gave Florida its first lead, 19-18.
“The first 10 minutes were sound,” Bennett said, “and then they went on a 17-4 run and we got sped up and made poor decisions and that hurt us. Certainly the ability not to make outside shots has been an Achilles' heel for us all year, and they took it out of Mike's hands with the trap in the second half.”
It took a bit for the Gators to adjust to the pack-line, which essentially is a man-to-man system that starts with each Virginia player stationed along an imaginary arc about 16 feet from the basket. A defender doesn't cross the line unless his man gets the ball. When the ball is passed, the defender goes back to the pack and a different defender goes out to cover his man.
If the ball penetrates the pack, defenders collapse on the player with the ball and work to force a turnover. That's what happened on Florida's first possession, with Young getting called for traveling as the defense collapsed on him.
The Gators turned over the ball four times in the first 5 1/2 minutes, then just three times the rest of the half.