Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers opened ACC play with a win at Virginia Tech.
In the span of a week, Virginia has won in a barn and in a castle. After winning 87-79 at Minnesota’s Williams Arena, affectionately known as The Barn, on Monday, the Cavaliers grabbed a 57-54 victory at Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum on Sunday night. And for now a team picked as preseason paupers in the ACC owns a 1-0 conference record after leading wire to wire in Blacksburg.
In the end, the Cavs weebled and wobbled, but they did not fall down as the Hokies tried to mount a last-gasp comeback.
“Exciting. I told the guys that our wheels were wobbling a little down the stretch, we were leaking some oil, I think we were fatigued, but we showed enough composure and toughness to come out with a win in a tough setting,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network. “We played so well early and kind of just hung on, but I just was so proud of the guys because they battled. I challenged them before the game. I said show me that you’ve learned. We’ve just played five games in a row away from home, we’ve learned some valuable lessons, [some] painful and some exciting ones, show me that you’ve learned in this setting and I think they did.”
The Hoos arguably put together their best full-game defensive effort with two solid halves on that end of the floor. For the game, the visitors held VT to 43.1% shooting; Tech shot 40.9% in the first half and 44.8% in the second half. Other than Malcolm Delaney ‘s 26 points, the Cavaliers held most of the Hokies’ other options in check as only Jeff Allen joined his teammate in double figures with 12.
The biggest key to those numbers, however, had to be Virginia’s transition defense. UVa made few mistakes in that phase of the game, regularly getting back on defense to force the hosts to play against the Pack-Line scheme. With well-timed double teams mixed into the post defense, the Cavaliers kept Virginia Tech uncomfortable on the blocks and prevented many straight-line drives to the rim as well. VT had just 7 fastbreak points on the night.
“We knew in this game, don’t let them get in transition and make it a halfcourt game,” Bennett said. “They got a few fastbreak points in the second half, but they had to play against a set defense almost the whole game and that was to our advantage.”
Of course, there were some breakdowns but UVa erased some of the miscues with a season-high 6 blocked shots. Two of those came in huge moments with the Cavaliers clinging to the lead in the second half. The first came in the opening moments of the second half as the Hokies came out of the locker room with increased intensity on the defensive end of the floor and trimmed a 36-24 halftime deficit to 8 points in the first four minutes after intermission. With a chance to cut the lead even more with a fastbreak look, VT’s Terrell Bell caught the ball going to the rim on the left wing – Virginia’s Mustapha Farrakhan swooped in from behind the play, however, and blocked the shot attempt to hold the Hoos’ advantage at 8 points entering the under-16 media timeout.
Virginia’s Mike Scott poured in 21 points and also pulled down 13 rebounds.
The other key blocked shot came from Mike Scott in the final 1:05. UVa took a 53-49 lead when Farrakhan drew two defenders, Allen and Dorenzo Hudson , as he caught a pass off of a down screen from Assane Sene ; by doubling Farrakhan off the screen, it left Sene alone on the right block and help defender Victor Davila had his head turned away from the ball looking at Scott. Farrakhan dropped the ball down for the easy lay-in to post the four-point lead. Of note, Sene had another key lay-up on a Farrakhan feed to give his team a 51-46 lead in the final 5 minutes as well; those two buckets were Sene’s only 4 points of the game.
Interestingly, Scott’s big block came on an almost identical play on the other end. Davila set on a down screen for Hudson and that drew both Jontel Evans and Scott toward Hudson as he caught the ball on the right elbow; Sene was the help defender, in this case occupied with Allen. But after providing curl protection, Scott did not give up on the play and quickly recovered behind Davila as he tried to make a step-through dunk from the right block. Scott got the left-handed block on the play and helped UVa kill off roughly 30 seconds on the next possession with the four-point lead still intact.
That extremely important defensive play was far from the only big moment of the night for Scott. The senior forward posted his fourth straight double-double and fifth in eight games this season; he is the first Cavalier to post four in a row since Travis Watson in 2002. Against the Hokies, Scott recorded 21 points and 13 rebounds to go with 2 assists and the 1 critical blocked shot.
Scott said he was happy to get the big victory against Virginia Tech on Sunday.
“We don’t like them and they don’t like us. I’m glad we came and beat them,” Scott said. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re a great team, a great veteran team, but … I’m just so happy right now. This is definitely a rivalry. … We want to beat them bad. … It’s one of the greatest rivalries in this league.”
Farrakhan finished with a solid stat line in addition to his key block too. He registered 9 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocked shots; the senior wing did not commit a turnover. Another veteran player came through with some quality minutes earlier than expected as well. Sammy Zeglinski, in his first action of the season after surgery on his left knee, did not score in 15 minutes, but played solid defense and had 3 assists and 1 steal. A pair of freshmen made key contributions to the final outcome as well. Joe Harris had 10 points and 2 assists while KT Harrell chipped in 7 points off the bench.
With those efforts leading the way, the Hoos won their third game in the last four outings and started with a win in ACC play for the third straight season on the road. An 8-game home stand at the John Paul Jones Arena is up next for the Cavaliers as they start December in good position and in good spirits for a young and growing team. For Bennett, though, he just wants his team to focus on the steps it takes to keep improving this season.
“We talk about treating winning and losing as imposters. For us, it is about our process,” Bennett said. Can we just keep getting better?”