The biggest win of the young Tony Bennett era came just the way the first-year coach likes it. Defensively. Well, for a half at least. The Virginia men’s basketball team used a solid second-half defensive effort to rally past 24th-ranked UAB on Wednesday night, 72-63, the first win over a ranked team in Bennett’s short tenure.
“[UAB] is a talented team. It’s a prelude to what we’re going to see in the ACC. We had to play well to be in it. We didn’t play perfect by any means, early on they got baskets at the rim and in the paint, but we toughened up as the game went on and it was definitely a team effort,” Bennett said. “I like it that I think we won it with our defense in the second half. I’ll have to watch the tape, but that always makes me happy.”
The Cavaliers needed to toughen up as the game progressed after the Blazers torched the nets in the first half. UAB shot 54.8% before intermission, making 17 of 31 shots to take a 35-30 lead into the locker room. Elijah Millsap, an athletic 6’6″ wing, did most of the damage with a variety of shots and drives while committing just one turnover. He made 8 of 13 shots in the first half en route to 17 points, a number that tied the John Paul Jones Arena’s opponent record for points in a half. While he was credited with just one first-half assist, Millsap was clearly manipulating the Hoos’ defense and causing match-up problems.
In the second half, the Cavaliers slowed down Millsap thanks in large part to Mustapha Farrakhan , who drew the one-on-one defensive assignment for the majority of the final 20 minutes. After halftime, Millsap still managed to score 10 and make 5 of 9 shots to finish with a game-high 27 points, but things were much more challenging. Farrakhan kept the ball in front of him for the most part and contested shots, blocking one on an early second-half drive from Millsap. The UAB standout committed three turnovers in the second half.
Mustapha Farrakhan blocked two shots and played tough defense against UAB.
Farrakhan also made plays on offense in the second half, scoring eight points and dishing out two assists without committing a turnover. He finished with 10 points, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal.
“You can’t be a guy that if your first shot doesn’t go in, you’re a mess. That doesn’t work at this level. We challenged him in the second half and we said our four guys are going to play the system – you go out and you have freedom to try and make, I’m not going to say it was a box-and-one or a pack-and-one but it was like we wanted to make it hard for him to get touches. And I thought he made him work,” Bennett said. “He’s quick laterally… and we just have to make guys make tough shots the whole game. It was too easy for him in the first half. He’s talented.”
The Hoos’ defense also fed off the energy of Jontel Evans after intermission. The freshman point guard flashed his noted on-ball defense throughout in the second half, pestering ball-handlers, scrapping for loose balls, and getting the crowd and his teammates revved up. On one notable play, Evans got tangled up like his old high school football days around a loose ball and tumbled to the floor going after the ball. He came up with it and then fired it ahead to an open teammate.
Evans, meanwhile, was also making some key plays on offense. Twice in the second half, the shot clock dipped below 6 seconds and twice Evans scored before it was too late. On one play, he caught the ball in the corner just in front of UVa’s bench and knocked down a 3-pointer courtesy of a drive-and-kick pass from Farrakhan. On the other, he broke down his defender and got to the room for a left-handed lay-up.
Senior guard Calvin Baker said Evans’ defense can help pick up the team.
Jontel Evans goes to the floor to retrieve a loose ball in the second half.
“I think when me and Jontel are playing together, it’s a real good defensive unit because he can apply pressure on the ball and I can apply a lot of pressure on the ball. Jontel is really good at playing on-ball defense and he really makes it hard for the other team to run their offense,” Baker said. “Basically, I just feed off of his energy. When he’s playing good like that, it just trickles down to our whole defense and it’s really good for us.”
Baker had a good night for the Cavaliers as well, joining Evans, Farrakhan, Mike Scott and Sylven Landesberg as some of the key contributors to the win. Baker recorded 8 points and a team-high 6 assists to go with 1 steal. Scott, making his return from an ankle injury that sidelined him for three games, added 10 points and 7 rebounds. Landesberg poured in 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 block.
That trio joined Evans and Farrakhan down the stretch as the Cavaliers closed out UAB with a handful of critical possessions and clutch free-throw shooting. The smaller line-up gave UVa good ball-handling, dribble-drive options offensively, and the aforementioned defense.
The Hoos think the win, the first by single digits this season, could help as the season progresses toward ACC play.
“It definitely is a confidence booster. Going into ACC play, there are going to be a lot of teams where we’re going to have to play games like this. The whole 40 minutes,” Landesberg said. “This prepared us for those kinds of games.”