Sean Singletary had 18 points in the win, including a free throw after this intentional foul call.
Until the final 10 minutes Tuesday night, the Virginia basketball team looked like it was playing an exhibition game. The Cavaliers were uninterested in getting defensive stops, a trait that has plagued them for much of the season. The offense was stagnant. The crowd? Lethargic.
Suddenly, everything changed. The defense improved. The Hoos hit enough shots and the fans came to life to spark a comeback against Richmond. The result was a 66-64 win in the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.
“It’s a little bit off balance right now. On the one hand, this is the time of year where you just win and move on. You can scratch, claw, fight your way to victory by a few points and just try to do that. On the other hand, what I saw for the better part of the game was listlessness more than anything else,” UVa coach Dave Leitao said. “We were getting exposed and carved up on the defensive end. That’s obviously not too pleasing and something that we have to find a way through. Being in tournament play for 20-some years, and listening to the guys talk on TV and radio just makes me laugh, because your last game really has nothing to do with your next game. If your team is hot, all it takes is another hot team to knock you out. So you just have to find a way to win and move on. Our next game isn’t until Monday, which will give us some time to prepare and get back into the gym and work, especially on the defensive end.”
The encouraging thing for Leitao, perhaps, is that there is something to build from on the defensive end for the first time in many weeks. The Cavs ended the game on a 17-3 run over the final 8:30, thanks in large part to their defensive effort. Players were making the right rotations, reacting more quickly, and fighting through screens. It was far from perfect, but for a group that has struggled to execute at all on defense during many games this season, it was a start.
The Spiders had jumped out to a 61-49 lead at the 8:41 mark on an easy lay-up, one of many up to that point in the game. That gimme bucket came on the heels of an open 3-pointer for Dan Geriot and a dunk by Gaston Moliva.
But the Cavs hit a couple of shots and a four-point trip thanks to an intentional foul call on a Sean Singletary drive in transition and a Mamadi Diane and-one play closed the gap to six points. With a suddenly vocal crowd providing an emotional spark, the Hoos dug in on D. UR managed just one free throw and one basket (a difficult baseline runner) in the final 8:30 as Virginia rallied to win.
“It all started with our sense of urgency. It’s something we have done throughout the season, but not often enough,” Singletary said. “We knew we had to make some key stops, and tonight we were able to do that.”
“We’re a team that sometimes needs things to be very literal. We need to prepare for specific things, and we only had one day of prep to talk about what we needed to. We kept getting caught. We didn’t have enough preparation time to make defending their perimeter game doable. Most importantly, we weren’t psychologically ready to defend that, even if we hadn’t practiced it. Those kinds of things will come back to bite you if you’re not ready,” Leitao said. “Before you know it, you’re down ten, and everybody in the arena including myself, thought it was over. To see how we responded – I think on nine out of our last ten possessions we got stops – was proof that we do have the ability to do it. We just need to be able to be locked in a whole lot more.”
Mamadi Diane ’s 10 second-half points helped the Hoos rally.
As is the case in any comeback, however, the Hoos needed to pair points with the stops. While it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, they came up with enough shots to inch ahead in the final 1:12. First, a Singletary steal led to a lay-up for Diane, who had 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in the game. On its next possession, Virginia nearly turned the ball over on an attempted post feed to Mike Scott when the ball was tipped by Richmond’s Oumar Sylla. But Singletary came up with the loose ball in the paint and immediately kicked it out to Adrian Joseph for an open 3-pointer, which he drained to cut the lead to 64-63.
Singletary followed that assist with another clutch basket to add to his career file. He drove to the middle from the right baseline, jump-stopped, and hit the short jumper for the 65-64 lead with 1:12 remaining. He finished with 18 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals; the star guard has scored in double figures 53 straight times, the longest streak in school history. Singletary now stands 32nd in ACC career scoring, a spot he shares with N.C. State’s Julius Hodge (2,040).
The Cavs held on after the go-ahead basket despite missing some free throws and a threatening drive from Kevin Smith. That, of course, meant the Cavaliers advanced in the CBI bracket. They will face Old Dominion on Monday at the John Paul Jones Arena.
“You definitely always want to keep playing,” Singletary said. “Although this might be the lesser of the three tournaments, there are a lot of teams that aren’t playing at all right now.”