Virginia coach Tony Bennett was not pleased with the defensive effort in a win against Longwood, particularly in the second half.
Be sound with the ball, jam the middle and contest shots on defense – these are the principles that Tony Bennett has impressed on his new team over and over from the spring through the preseason. In Bennett’s first game as the Virginia coach against Longwood on Friday night, the Hoos performed admirably in both regards for one half, and won it by 22 points; then they struggled for another half, and lost it by nine. The end result was an 85-72 win for Virginia, but also some sobering thoughts from Bennett for Wahoo fans as the Cavaliers launch a new era.
“I told the guys – I asked them in the locker room, ‘What do you think happened there in the second half? Do you think that was a good enough effort on the defensive end and the offensive end?'” Bennett said. “To a man, they said, ‘No, it wasn’t, we have to improve.'”
In the opening half, the Cavaliers were solid with the ball and, save a few lapses in the interior, sound in Bennett’s new pack-line defense. Virginia committed just five turnovers in the first half against a Longwood team that prides itself on its pressure-defense; the Lancers use an overplaying man-to-man defense, and ranked fifth in the nation in turnover margin last season. Defensively, the Cavaliers held the visitors to 40 percent shooting in the first half, including 2 of 12 from the 3-point line. Three of the Lancers’ starters combined to shoot 0-13 in the opening half, including Dana Smith and Kevin Swecker, their leading scorers of a year ago. Only center Antwan Carter did significant damage to Virginia before intermission with 13 points on 6-7 shooting off the bench.
In the second half, all of that changed. Longwood knocked in 17 of 31 field goals and 6-10 3-pointers. Offensively, Virginia turned the ball over 11 times, including three apiece from Sammy Zeglinski and Sylven Landesberg . After three turnovers in five possessions during 2:08 of game time, Longwood cut a 60-41 margin to 60-50 going into the second media timeout of the half.
Even as Virginia became more solid with the ball in the latter part of the second half, Longwood cut the margin to nine points on three occasions as the Cavalier defense allowed numerous open looks. The Lancers did knock down some difficult shots, including several contested 3’s. It also hurt that Virginia was missing two big bodies in Assane Sene (suspended for three games) and Jamil Tucker (personal issues); Carter and forward Billy Robinson Jr. combined for 31 points on 14-18 shooting. The Hoos were also without a good on-the-ball defender in Calvin Baker (knee). In all, though, Bennett said the defense left much to be desired.
“We struggled a little bit in the second half – that might be an understatement,” Bennett said. “They got us on their heels – and they hit some tough 3’s – but to give up that many points, that was discouraging.”
The Cavaliers did do some nice things offensively while playing a small line-up for most of the contest. Bennett indicated the line-up will likely change as the season goes on, particularly with a bigger South Florida team awaiting Virginia on Monday; last night’s line-up was reactionary to both a small Longwood team and to the absence of two of Virginia’s posts, Bennett said. The starter with the most unforeseen output, perhaps, was Mustapha Farrakhan , who tied a career high with 17 points on 5-8 shooting in 31 minutes.
“It feels good to be out there and play,” Farrakhan said. “I used to just play sparingly, so I never really could showcase what I had, or if I made a mistake, I’d be out of the game. He just gives us some freedom, but lets us know when we need to tighten it up as well.”
“He’s done a nice job,” Bennett said. “We need some guys to break out, and that’s where I’ve said, for us to be competitive this year, have to try and give us some leadership and soundness.”
Jontel Evans provided a spark for Virginia, getting into the lane and hassling the opposing point guard in his 20 minutes of play.
The Cavalier with the biggest breakout performance, however, was freshman Jontel Evans . The debut in a Virginia uniform for Evans at the 8:09 mark of the first half overlapped with the Cavaliers’ biggest run of the night, as Virginia expanded a seven-point lead to 22 at halftime. The shifty Evans was a playmaker on both ends in the first half – he scored four points, committed no turnovers, and had an assist while frequently penetrating into the lane, and secured a steal while pestering Longwood point guard E.J. Johnson throughout that span.
Evans made a few mistakes becoming of a freshman in the second half, including two consecutive turnovers in the backcourt that led to Longwood’s initial second-half run. Overall, though, Evans’ upside was quite apparent in his 20 minutes of action, as he made his college debut in front of his parents, two sisters, grandmother, niece, cousin, and friends.
“Coach told me, ‘We need a spark,'” Evans said. “I think that’s the type of the player I am – I can come off the bench, and I can spark stuff with my defense, and I think that’s what I did tonight.”
Virginia’s offensive effort was well-balanced overall, as all five starters finished with double figures in scoring. The Cavaliers received typical offensive production from Sylven Landesberg , who led all scorers with 23 points on 8-13 shooting while taking much of the ball-handling responsibility. Mike Scott also earned his 11th career double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds. And, after struggling with his shot early, Jeff Jones finally caught a rhythm, scoring eight of his 10 points in the second half, six of them on three consecutive Virginia possessions.
“The way [Longwood] sometimes trapped us and spread the floor, I thought we got to the lane pretty well, shared the ball,” Bennett said. “At times, I thought the extra pass was made, guys got rhythm plays. We probably could have gone inside to Mike [Scott] more, but when we needed to get a bucket, we got him a few touches, which I thought was important. So, we just have to keep building on those things.”
As Bennett continues to emphasize, though, the offense is not always going to be there – and when it’s not, the defense, he says, has to be a constant. Consistent with UVa’s closed-door scrimmages against St. John’s and Marquette, Bennett said, the defense was lacking at times against Longwood when Virginia needed it most. And with his father Dick Bennett sitting behind the Virginia bench during Friday’s game, Tony Bennett joked that his father may have a few words of advice for how Virginia needs to get better.
“I heard a couple shouts from him,” Bennett said with a laugh. “I don’t think he’ll be real proud of that defensive performance.”