The Virginia and West Virginia basketball teams both rely on defense to wear down opponents, though they do it in dramatically different ways. UVA grinds opponents through the halfcourt Pack Line defense, while WVU challenges opponents with unending fullcourt pressure.
In Saturday’s showdown of contrasting styles, the Mountaineers won the final six minutes and outlasted the Cavaliers, 66-57. The 9-point loss represented the largest margin of defeat for the Hoos since the Tennessee debacle that ended 2013 and snapped a 24-game home winning streak at the John Paul Jones Arena.
“West Virginia is an obviously well-coached, very physical, tough, veteran team, and you could see that,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “Our guys gave effort, but I do not know if we quite matched the physicality. It was a little different for some of our new guys, and they did not play well. A couple of costly turnovers, they capitalized on those and then I thought they got into our paint at crucial times in the second half, whether it was off the bounce and we had an over help and they would kick it to a big three in the corner, or just tough offensive rebounds. Though they only had eight [offensive rebounds], they were keeping them alive. Then we had trouble scoring.”
Most of those issues observed by Coach Bennett came in the game’s crucial stretch. A see-saw second half tipped in Virginia’s direction with a 7-0 run, capped by Darius Thompson’s alley-oop dunk for a 49-45 lead, but West Virginia responded to win the final six minutes and the game. Surprisingly for fans accustomed to UVA’s defense clamping down late in games, the Cavaliers failed to get stops in the closing moments.
After a timeout at the 5:58 mark immediately following that Thompson slam, the Mountaineers scored on 10 of their final 11 possessions. That included 7 of 8 trips before the Hoos sent the visitors to the line intentionally three times in the final 27 seconds. WVU’s Jevon Carter started the series of scores with a pair of free throws with 5:56 remaining before Lamont West followed with 5 points on back-to-back possessions via a layup and a 3-pointer. West Virginia scored another 3-pointer, 2 layups, and a free throw to round out the 7 key possessions.
Carter finished with 11 points and 5 assists, while Nathan Adrian tallied 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Esa Ahmad and West, who hit half of the team’s 4 3-pointers during these decisive moments, added 9 and 8 points, respectively. Those players helped the visitors shoot 57.1% after intermission.
UVA sent out four guards and Isaiah Wilkins for more than half of those six minutes with Perrantes, Thompson, Devon Hall, and Ty Jerome together to try to deal with West Virginia’s press. But unlike the Ohio State game on Wednesday night when Marial Shayok and Jack Salt got some time with a similar small ball strategy, the Cavaliers couldn’t quite pull out the win this time around.
“I thought we made a little bit of a run when we had Darius, Ty, and London, our three probably best ball-handlers, passers, and maybe move London off of the ball and get some stuff in the middle,” Bennett said. “I thought Kyle [Guy] hit some good shots, and then it got real physical and I thought we needed a little more size and physicality, but I decided to go with the ball handling, almost three point guard types at times.”
“For a second, I thought it was going to be good. It was just a fine line with our personnel,” Bennett continued. “I thought ‘Well, should we have Jack [Salt] in there.’ You second guess, you think about all of the different rotations. Marial? It was a possession game. Then you look at our free throws and that was concerning too, from last game and this game. You knew it was going to be hard fought so you needed to capitalize every possession, and a breakdown to a turnover, or missed free throws, those things, you really felt them late in the game.”
While WVU closed with a flourish, Virginia stumbled at the same time in that game of possessions. Whereas the Mountaineers put up points on 7 of 8 possessions, the Hoos scored on just 3 of 8. Mamadi Diakite missed a layup at the beginning of the string, while Thompson had a turnover. Jerome, Thompson, and Perrantes all missed 3-pointers in the final 2:25 as a 54-53 Virginia lead evaporated into a 60-55 deficit.
Thompson finished with 14 points to lead Virginia as he made 3 of 6 triples, including a pair in the game’s first two minutes that helped UVA push out to a 17-6 lead. Shayok added 9 points, though he played only 5 minutes in the second half. Wilkins and Guy chipped in 7 points each. Salt had 6 points, all before halftime as he played 4 minutes in the second half.
Perrantes, meanwhile, recorded 6 points, 7 assists, 3 turnovers, 4 rebounds, and 1 blocked shot in a game-high 37 minutes. Having to deal with West Virginia’s pressure and orchestrate the UVA attack seemed to go well for 25 minutes or so, but he had trouble finding his shooting touch throughout. He made 2 of 10 shots, including 1 of 7 3-pointers in the contest. That came on the heels of three straight double-digit scoring games and a stretch where he made 10 of 19 triples.
WVU coach Bob Huggins said the plan was “just make it hard – hard to catch it, hard to pass it, hard to shoot it” when dealing with Perrantes. The senior guard said he’s seeing more defensive attention this season as expected and still adjusting to that, but playing against West Virginia’s ongoing press proved to be the challenge Saturday.
The Cavaliers committed 14 turnovers, the lowest by an opponent against the Mountaineers this season but still a season-high for the Hoos. West Virginia logged 10 steals as part of that total and scored 18 points off of turnovers.
“It’s brutal. Playing against the press for 40 minutes is tough and they do not stop,” Perrantes sad. “They keep going until the whistle blows. It is something you can’t replicate because you have to find a way to get through it and we struggled to find that.”