UVa’s Mike Scott finished with 10 points.
Off to its best start in 30 years with a 10-game home winning streak in tow, the Virginia men’s basketball team couldn’t find a way to shake its in-state rival Virginia Tech on Sunday. The Hokies, who entered the game winless in the ACC, executed a superb defensive game plan and pulled off the upset against No. 15 UVa, 47-45, in front of a sold-out crowd of 14,021 at the John Paul Jones Arena.
Obviously, dropping such a tightly contested game to a heated rival disappointed the Hoos.
“I’m frustrated. You don’t want to lose and you definitely don’t want to lose to Virginia Tech, especially at home, so it’s very frustrating,” UVa senior Mike Scott said.
“It’s just a tough one,” Virginia forward Akil Mitchell said. “It’s one of those nights where nothing’s falling and it’s just a frustrating night because you know you played defensively well enough to win the game but just couldn’t get some of them to fall.”
As a game played in the 40’s on the scoreboard indicates the contest unfolded as a defensive battle. The Cavaliers (15-3) routinely forced the Hokies (12-7) into tough shots late in the shot clock, but the visitors came up with enough key shots to finish 45.2% shooting in the game. With the see-saw game hanging in the balance in the final three minutes, Dorenzo Hudson proved to be the guy that delivered some critical points.
Hudson, who finished with 12 points, had 6 points in the final 2:12 to help his team overcome a 41-40 deficit. He made a free throw when he drew a foul call on the right block, a post shot off the glass from the left block, and a 3-pointer in the left corner in the final 30 seconds that essentially put the game away. On his final shot, which Bennett called a “dagger” basket, VT ran a flat ball screen at the top of the key for Erick Green and then had him reverse off the ball screen a second time. When UVa covered both of those options up, the ball kicked around the perimeter to Hudson and he nailed the 3-ball over a closeout contest from Mitchell.
“The last play that we scored on, the three, we were just trying to get a quick flat ball screen,” VT coach Seth Greenberg said. “We thought they’d choke off Jarell [Eddie] on the replace and I told Dorenzo to be ready to shoot the ball and he was. Fortunately for us, he knocked it down.”
“I’ll have to watch the film to see how close I was,” Mitchell said. “I mean he pulled the trigger and I felt like I contested pretty well and I thought he just hit a tough shot. I’ll have to watch the film and see.”
While the Hokies came up with key buckets against a stingy Virginia defense, the Hoos could not do the same against a well executed game plan from VT. The important pieces of the plan: make Scott catch it as far off the blocks as possible and then crowd or double team him, double team off of Jontel Evans when appropriate, deny catch-and-shoot chances for Sammy Zeglinski and Joe Harris , and then crowd the lane on attempted drives or cuts off of the double teams. While none of that is surprising or ground-breaking from a strategy standpoint, it was well conceived and well executed by the visitors.
The proof is in the proverbial pudding. Virginia scored a season-low 45 points while shooting a season-low 32.6% (15-46).
Scott, the focal point for the defense, posted 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 turnovers. He also received just two shot attempts after intermission, one of which came on the back end of a fastbreak opportunity for a dunk. The rest of the time the Hokies played him physically with his man on the bottom side and then sagged the entry-pass defender down just a step or two to take away passing angles. Then if Scott did touch the ball, the on-ball defender forced a dribble move which triggered an immediate double team.
That strategy put the onus on other players to score, but VT closed out on shooters and the Cavaliers made just 1 of 14 3-pointers in the game. The Hokies also tried to make Cavalier starting guard Jontel Evans , who had the only made triple on the night, drive into the paint and finish consistently. Evans made 4 of 12 shots and finished with 10 points. Harris also had 10 points and 7 rebounds, while Zeglinski added 5 points and 7 rebounds. As a team, the Hoos had just four assists.
Jontel Evans scored 10 points and added 3 steals.
“They really sandwiched [Mike Scott]. I thought he found some people as we were cutting off of him,” Bennett said. “We have to keep going to him, but he is really drawing a ton of attention. When that happens, we have to make the next pass – it’s hard to shoot over a double team or if someone is in front and behind him – and capitalize on that.”
Still, the hosts squandered some chances to win the game despite the offensive struggles. In the second half, the Cavaliers missed seven free throws and six lay-up attempts. Six of those missed chances at the charity stripe came after forcing VT into the free throw bonus situation with 10:52 remaining in the game. In the end, Virginia made just 14 of 22 free throw attempts while Virginia Tech converted 4 of 7 at the line.
“We struggled to shoot the ball. We struggled from the three. We struggled from the free throw line. We even missed some layups. I told our guys, what else can you do but take those shots? They showed tremendous heart trying to get back into the game. Even with all of that cold shooting there were still opportunities to have a chance to win this game but we didn’t,” Bennett said “When you look at it statistically, it was obvious that it’s hard to be successful when shots aren’t dropping.”
“We didn’t hit shots. Our defense was good so maybe if we had hit some of those shots we could have come out victorious,” Evans said. “They hit some tough shots. Our defense was there. They just hit a lot of tough shots. It was not being able to make shots on the offensive end that hurt us.”
As a result, the Hoos were left to wonder what might have been as they fell to 2-2 in the ACC and the Hokies improved to 1-4. Now all the Cavaliers can do is try to turn a negative into a positive as the conference schedule continues.
“Obviously it’s a tough loss. You never want to lose, especially a game like this [against] an ACC rival,” Harris said. “But maybe down the stretch we can look at this as a good thing for us, overcome some adversity, and help motivate this week in practice going into the Boston College game.”