Stretches. That appeared to be the magic evaluation term for the Virginia basketball team after its season opener with UNC Greensboro on Friday night. In the end, UVA had more good ones than bad ones and started with a 60-48 victory at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers have won eight season openers under Tony Bennett and is 19-1 in their last 20 openers overall.
“First of all, Greensboro is a physical team,” Bennett said. “Offensively, they run their stuff very hard. You have to work to guard them. We had stretches of really good defense but defensively, they make you work. Nothing came easy, really on the defensive end or on the offensive end. Both teams were really going at it.”
“I think we played hard,” UVA senior Isaiah Wilkins said. “I think we had really good defense in the stretches. Practice is obviously different than the game. So, we take this game and we learn from it and we get ready for Monday.”
For the most part, the defense held strong against a team that finished 25-10 last season, the best record in program history. UNCG returned 11 letterwinners from that team. That included the Spartans’ leading scorer from a year ago, but junior guard Francis Alonso and his teammates had a tough time getting any offense going against UVA.
Alonso finished with nine points on 3-of-12 shooting, while senior forward Marvin Smith posted 12 points on 2-of-12 shooting. UNC Greensboro shot 15 of 51 as a team, a meager 29.4%. The Hoos hadn’t held an opponent to lower than 30% shooting since the Robert Morris game last December. UNCG made just 4 of 26 3-pointers, a 15.4% clip. So clearly, the defense had enough good stretches.
There were also some lapses that included giving up a dunk after a timeout. Plus, the Spartans collected 16 offensive rebounds. Those are some areas that will need to be cleaned up in the weeks ahead. Still, visiting coach Wes Miller saw plenty to be impressed.
“They imposed their will on us style-wise tonight,” Miller said. “I called more plays than I’ll ever want to call in a season because we couldn’t figure out how to score. … What we will take from their defense is the way they are active with their hands. They make every pass difficult because of their ball pressure and how active their hands are, and their positioning. They very rarely are out of position. Those will be the two things we focus on in the film to try and learn from.”
Virginia had some similar ragged moments on the offensive end of the floor. The Hoos shot just 34.8% in the first half, but bounced back to make 52.6% in the second half. They finished at 42.9% (18-42) for the game. They also knocked down just 4 of 16 (25%) 3-pointers.
UVA also committed 13 turnovers with just eight assists. That included nine turnovers in the second half, which allowed UNCG to make a brief run that trimmed a 19-point lead with 14:24 remaining to eight with 5:54 remaining.
“When you look at the stat sheet, you see the turnovers in the second half,” Bennett said. “I think we got a little anxious. We were in a good spot, up 16 or 17, and we just need to let the offense work and get sound shots, the shot you want. I think you can put yourself in a good spot but we always either had a quick shot, a forced shot or a turnover. They’re capable and so we couldn’t get a defensive rebound and started fouling a little bit. I think those things showed up and we have got to really go to work on those areas. But, that is what happens when you are playing a solid team with some veterans and we are still a young team and finding who we are.”
While those stretches of inconsistent play got the attention of the Hoos, they did put together some encouraging signs as well.
Kyle Guy, for example, led all scorers with 16 points behind a pair of 3-pointers and eight free throws. After an offseason where the coaches pushed him to be more assertive, he did exactly that with more purpose coming off of screens and more paint touches off the dribble. He led the team with three assists as well. That came off of very little practice because he sat out much of the time since the Villanova scrimmage with a back injury.
“As everyone saw, I was a little more aggressive this year than last,” Guy said. “Coach has been on me all offseason to shoot the ball whenever I’m open and try to create for myself and others, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Devon Hall joined him in double figures with 13 points on a very efficient night that should be expected of a fifth-year senior. He made four of five shots, including his only 3-point attempt, and four of four free throws to get his points. He added six rebounds and two assists as well with the only real issue being a team-high four turnovers.
Throw in seven points each from Ty Jerome and Nigel Johnson, who also added six rebounds, and the backcourt put together a fairly decent night once they settled in a little bit.
In the frontcourt, Wilkins added nine points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots, two steals, and two assists. He did not commit a turnover in a team-high 36 minutes, a welcomed sight after the way last season ended with him battling an illness. Fellow starter Jack Salt scored six points, in large part because he went four of four at the free throw line.
Virginia, as a whole, also earned 24 trips to the free throw line. That alone has to go in the encouraging category after the Cavaliers ranked near the bottom of the nation in several free throw related categories. They made 20 of 24 attempts to finish at 83.3% shooting at the line.
“We have to keep working,” Bennett said. “This is a newer team, our experienced guys are the Jack Salt’s and Isaiah Wilkins’ and of course Devon [Hall], who have been in more of a supportive role. Now they’re taking a little bit bigger role. It was good to see Jack with a couple of jump hooks and making his free throws. There were a couple of good things there. I mean, we got to the line more. But with the new guys, it is going to be a process. And hopefully they’ll get more and more comfortable and know when to be assertive and know when to let it come. That was a balance that was lacking at time by a lot of guys tonight.”
While Virginia pulled away to the 12-point win and got the season started off with a win, fans who were eager to see redshirt freshmen Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter felt a little disappointed. Huff did not play – Bennett indicated that defending UNCG’s screening actions was a challenge so he went with the experienced post defenders – and Hunter logged only 10 minutes.
Those players may be able to find more minutes on Monday night when Austin Peay visits the JPJ as part of the NIT Season Tip-off.