Aug. 12, 2012
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ANTWERP, Belgium –- About 65 minutes before the start of the third game of their tour of Europe, members of the University of Virginia men’s basketball team walked out the front door of their hotel Saturday night, ready to board the bus that would take them to the gym, Sporthal Luisbekelaar.
They got a little exercise first. With streets around the Hilton closed for a local parade, the team’s chartered bus was parked near the Scheldt River, a 10-minute walk away. And so the Cavaliers made their way down cobblestone streets in this historic city, passing diners and drinkers and shoppers and even an outdoor basketball court on which pickup games were in progress.
“That was crazy,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said. “I’m so used to coming down from the elevator in the hotel, walking out and getting on the bus.”
Once they got to the gym, the Wahoos found they would be playing on a green court most notable for its tile surface and the lines that seemingly went every which way on it -– yellow, red, blue, orange, white and black lines.
“I felt like I was playing in my elementary school,” junior swingman Joe Harris said.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett didn’t have much to smile about on this evening, but he laughed about the court markings after the game.
“Half the time I couldn’t tell if we were in or out, I’ll be honest with you,” Bennett said. “But again, that’s part of being here, so you don’t worry about that."
What worries Bennett is the Cavaliers’ defense, or lack thereof. It was poor Thursday afternoon in a loss to the Netherlands B team and dreadful two nights later against Gembo.
The reigning champion of the Belgian Second Division, Gembo made 11 shots from 3-point range in a 102-97 victory witnessed by about 100 fans at Sporthal Luisbekelaar.
In 2011-12, when the Wahoos advanced to the NCAA tournament, they didn’t allow more than 77 points in any game. Opponents averaged only 54.2 points against UVa.
Gembo had 53 by halftime Saturday night.
“I can say we’re consistent in our defense -- consistently bad,” Bennett said.
Virginia, which fell to 1-2 on this five-game tour, led only once Saturday night. With 5:43 to play, junior forward Akil Mitchell scored on a putback to put UVa ahead 85-84. Thirteen seconds later, however, Mitchell fouled a Gembo player who was attempting a 3-pointer.
The Belgian made all three free throws, and then, after a Virginia miss, Gembo hit a 3-pointer. Led by Evans, who scored all 14 of his points in the final quarter, the ‘Hoos fought back, but they couldn’t overtake their hosts. Gembo’s final trey, with 1:30 left, made it a five-point game, and a UVa turnover with 8 seconds remaining effectively sealed the outcome: Harris, confused by the lines, stepped out of bounds.
"It got us in the end," Bennett said of the court.
Gembo put on a shooting clinic from the line. The Belgians made 15 of 16 free throws in the second half (and 23 of 26 overall) to hold off the Cavaliers, who leave for their final stop on this tour, Paris, on Sunday morning. Gembo's players are older and savvier than most of their UVa counterparts, and the hosts exploited that advantage all night.
The Belgians “had a few tricks up their sleeve,” Mitchell said. “They were really crafty. I think we’ll be a little more prepared when it comes to France.”
Gembo’s Domien Loubry, a slick guard, scored a game-high 30 points and dominated when he had the ball. Evans, who was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team last season, is, like his head coach, concerned about Virginia's breakdowns in Europe.
“I’m known for being a defensive player, and our team is known for our defensive tenacity, and this whole trip we’ve been struggling, including myself,” said Evans said. “I’m the leader of this team and I just have to do better. I have to pick it up, because tonight, I feel like that was my worst game defensively since I’ve been here.”
On a night when the ‘Hoos had several highlight-reel dunks, Gembo had only one slam. The Belgians were superior, though, in the most important areas of the game.
“They’re not that athletic,” said Evans, who had 11 assists, “but they run their stuff, and they run it at their own pace, and they get the shots that they want, and they’re just good at what they do. And they can definitely shoot the lights out of the ball.”
Bennett said: “You look at them, and they don’t always pass the eye test, but they understand the game, and our young guys need to have that kind of mindset more and more. And part of that’s a learning experience.”
The past two games, Bennett said, are “showing all of our guys and us -– and not that I’m shocked -– that we have a ways to go. We really do. And for us to go against these teams, they’re not very good defensively, but they’re all very good offensively in terms of how they really make you pay. If you’re a little out of position, they’ll shoot the 3, they know how to do certain things, and their ability to stretch the floor and shoot the 3 exploits our, sometimes, unawareness or lack of urgency. Like a lot of our young guys don’t understand that you gotta close out with your hands high or [opponents are] gonna shoot it, and you’re gonna take it out of the net.”
The Cavaliers traveled by bus Friday morning from Amsterdam to Belgium, stopping first for a tour of Bruges and then continuing on to Antwerp. It was past 7:30 p.m. local time when the team finally checked into its hotel, and the players spent most of Saturday walking around the city, seeing the sights and shopping.
By the time the ‘Hoos arrived at the gym that night, more than 48 hours had passed since they had last had basketballs in their hands, and the opening tipoff was about 30 minutes away. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Virginia trailed 27-18 after one quarter.
“We were rusty early,” Bennett said. “That’s what these trips are, though. You’re going to have to just go with the flow, because you don’t get chances [to work out]. We tried to get a practice yesterday. We got in too late. This morning we tried again. We couldn’t get a gym. Then the bus was late, and we couldn’t get here in time. All those things will add up, but it’s a different game here, it’s a different place. That’s OK. The guys have to learn to play through [adversity].
“I wanted to find decent competition, and if it means getting our butts kicked and learning from it, so be it. That’s what we gotta do.”
Evans said: “Rome wasn’t built in one day, so it’s just going to take time for me and the young guys for everybody else just to jell on defense and communicate out there, and as time goes, we’ll definitely pick it up.”
Gembo had virtually no interior presence, and the 6-8, 234-pound Mitchell dominated around the basket. He scored Virginia’s first 10 points and finished with 20, along with a game-high 16 rebounds. Freshman center Mike Tobey, a 7-footer, came off the bench to contribute 19 points.
Mitchell, who averaged 4.1 points last season, “was active on the glass,” Bennett said. “He did some good things. They were a little small inside, so we could take advantage of that."
Harris added 18 points and 6 boards, and the Cavaliers also got solid games from sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson and freshman guard Taylor Barnette.
Jesperson, who sat out the second game in the Netherlands with a back injury, started Saturday night and scored 7 points. Barnette didn’t score in either of the first two games, but he had 7 points, including a trey, against Gembo.
“That was good to see," Bennett said. "Paul was better tonight, too, moving around. We’re a team that’s going to need everybody. It’s an adjustment for our first-years. It is. You can see they’re very inconsistent and they don’t have the advantage of the repetitions and knowing what to do and how to do it. And when you see some of our returners even struggle, no wonder the young guys are. There’s not a lot of combinations you can put on the floor right now without having a couple inexperienced guys.”
Bennett has been experimenting with lineups on this trip, and against Gembo he started junior Darion Atkins at center, in place of Tobey, and Jesperson at small forward, instead of freshman Evan Nolte.
The loss notwithstanding, Bennett said the game was a “good experience. We gotta keep learning and growing from these, and hopefully we’ll be a little better the next time we play.”
In Paris, UVa will meet AMW Team France on Monday night and again Tuesday night. The French team edged Kansas 74-73 on Saturday night in Paris.
HARD-CORE FANS: Inside the gym at Sporthal Luisbekelaar were two sets of bleachers, smaller than those found at most middle schools in the United States.
On the front row of one of the bleachers, wearing orange Virginia T-shirts, sat friends Jacob Rybicki and Amy Funkhouser. They weren’t locals. They live in northern England and took the overnight ferry from Hull to Antwerp.
“It’s cheaper than flying to the States” to see the ‘Hoos play, said Funkhouser, a 2003 alumna of UVa.
Rybicki is a 2002 graduate of the University. He and Funkhouser regularly read the Sabre.com, a popular website devoted to Virginia athletics, and they know their way around Antwerp.
“We’ve been down here once or twice just to visit,” Rybicki said.
As for the ferry, it’s a good way to travel, he said. “You wake up refreshed.”
Virginia 18 25 27 27 – 97
Gembo 27 26 27 22 -- 102
UVa – Mitchell 20, Harris 18, Evans 14, Jesperson 7, Atkins 5, Tobey 19, Anderson 7, Barnette 7, Nolte 0, Jones 0.
Gembo – Loubry 30, Desiron 15, Goethaert 9, van Aken 5, Lemaire 2, Swinnen 12, van Rilla 9, Goetgeluck 7, Celis 6, Janssen 5, Vermeersch 2.