NEW YORK – Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett isn’t one to step on the toes of his own players in postgame interviews. But as Isaiah Wilkins answered a question about Virginia’s leadership in the locker room after Virginia’s 70-55 victory over Rhode Island on Friday, Bennett couldn’t help but chip in his own laudatory two cents on the matter.
“Leadership-wise, Isaiah, Devon [Hall], and Jack [Salt], our captains, this is one of the best-led teams,” Bennett said, on the heels of his team’s second convincing victory in as many nights to claim the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament championship at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “I’ve had unbelievable players, and very good teams, but there’s something special about – Isaiah, I saw from Day 1, and Devon – their leadership.
“You watch ’em play. They play like leaders. And they’re so unselfish, and they play so hard, and that is contagious. I couldn’t be happier for them and prouder to have them as part of this team and leading us.”
In a game where Virginia’s backcourt duo of Kyle Guy (5 points on 2-of-8 shooting, 4 turnovers, 3 assists) and Ty Jerome (6 points, 1-of-3 shooting, 2 turnovers, 1 assist) had an off night offensively, the Cavaliers leaned on their three seniors to provide the firepower. Wilkins scored 19 points, Hall 18, and fifth-year senior Nigel Johnson scored 12 to account for 49 points and 70 percent of Virginia’s scoring.
“We felt like if we kept Guy and Jerome under 15 points combined, that we were going to win the game,” said Rams coach Dan Hurley, son of Naismith Hall of Fame high school coach Bob Hurley and brother of Arizona State coach and Duke alum Bobby Hurley, one night after Rhode Island won a thrilling 75-74 NIT semifinal over No. 20 Seton Hall. “I think we did that – we shut both guys down, we kept both of them under 10. Where we came up short was, we allowed the others [to score].”
Hall, whose role has been magnified after the departure of former backcourt mate and now-Cleveland Cavalier London Perrantes, did it on both ends. Of his 18 points, seven came in the opening 5:07 of the second half to help stave off an early second-half run that had given the Rams (3-2) their first lead. But most impressive was his defense on Rhode Island’s Jared Terrell, who scored just 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting after dropping 32 points on Seton Hall on Thanksgiving.
Hall’s quick scoring burst was followed by a three-point play from Mamadi Diakite and Guy’s only 3-pointer of the night from the right corner, giving Virginia its first double-digit lead (57-47). The margin never dropped below eight from there.
“Terrell’s a hard match-up, and I thought Devon really decided, ‘That’s an important guard for us,’” Bennett said. “[Hall is] an important defender. He made Terrell earn most of the night, and then he carried the load offensively, too. To do both is easier said than done, and he did it.”
Wilkins’ production was more predictable given the matchup, but valiant nonetheless. He needed just nine shots to score 19 points and he made seven of them. He also hit 5-6 free throws to go with six rebounds against a small Rams lineup, which has been hurt by key injuries. Wilkins, who set a new career scoring high, earned tournament MVP honors after scoring 27 points in the two games in Brooklyn.
“On the scouting report, I saw that he [6’4” guard Stanford Robinson] was a little bit smaller than I was, and I just wanted to take full advantage of that,” Wilkins said. “I think I got off to a good start. … The guys did a really good job of finding me on the post, and I just tried to make my shots.”
Johnson’s input was quieter, but should not be overlooked, especially since his 12 points were his season-high. He also supplied sound on-ball defense, and handled the ball flawlessly against the Rams’ late fullcourt pressure. His press-break assist on a three-point play by Wilkins, which made it 70-55 with 1:08 on the clock to lock up the win, was Johnson’s seventh assist in two games.
“Since I’ve been here, I don’t think we’ve seen anybody who’s been that quick who’s able to heat the ball up [defensively] and take the ball places when he’s right mentally,” Wilkins said. “It was really good to see him play well. I know he’s excited. It’s tough to come in and play at a different place immediately, so I’m definitely happy for him.”
Diakite added seven points with two boards, while Salt led all rebounders with eight for Virginia. Jerome added seven rebounds as well as the Hoos outrebounded the Rams 33-22. UVA hit 19 of 22 free throws compared to Rhode Island’s 7 of 14.
All that amounted to another convincing win for Virginia, which will almost certainly return to the Associated Press poll’s top 25 after being shut out of the rankings for the season’s first two weeks. That two-week absence came on the heels of 64 straight weeks of being ranked under Bennett. The Cavaliers’ smallest margin of victory this season is nine.
Regardless of polls, the Wahoos have little time to celebrate their fifth straight Thanksgiving tournament trophy. They host a ACC/Big 10 Challenge game Monday at home against Wisconsin, whose 3-3 record is deceiving as all three losses have come to ranked opponents and were tightly contested.
“I think one of our strengths is in our balance,” Wilkins said. “Devon played really well tonight, Nigel played really well. So each game it feels like it’s a different guy who is able to get it going, which is good for us.”
Bennett on London Perrantes suiting up for the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night (he did not play in Cleveland’s 100-99 win):
“That’s huge. You know, the last two games, Joe Harris has been terrific. Justin Anderson. Mike Scott. Those guys that have helped establish this program, they’re playing, they’re getting opportunities. I’ve been so fortunate to have so many good players. I can go through ’em. I don’t want to leave anybody out. But I love to see the success they’re having, and great job for London to get suited up, and who knows what’ll happen.”