As the clock crossed the 10:00 mark of the first half Friday night, the Virginia basketball team trailed visiting Hampton 17-15. Then Isaiah Wilkins happened.
Over the next 1:33, Wilkins super-charged the John Paul Jones Arena and his team with a series of plays to help propel the Hoos to an 82-48 victory. First, he caught a pass from Ty Jerome and slammed home a dunk to tie the score. On the following defensive possession, he deflected the ball twice before he forced an off-balance shot at the end of the shot clock. Hampton’s Jaekwon Carliyle missed a point-blank putback attempt before the ball got tipped out toward halfcourt.
When that tap-out began, Wilkins had both feet below the ACC logo in the paint. He sprinted alongside Hampton’s Austin Colbert to try to get it and the ball ricocheted all the way toward the other end of floor. As it approached the 3-point arch on that end, Colbert appeared to have won the foot race until Wilkins dove face first completely prone to the floor to knock it loose one more time before swimming on top of it for the recovery. He called a timeout to preserve the possession and the crowd responded with an ovation.
After that timeout, Wilkins avoided a blind side double team at the elbow and then fired the ball to Jerome alone in the corner for a 3-pointer and UVA never trailed again after shaking off one last tie a few moments later. That series of plays sparked a 25-8 run to end the half as the Cavaliers pushed the lead to 40-25 and never looked back.
“I’m glad the crowd recognized what he did in the first half with his hustle and his heart because that’s as good as it gets,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “That was my halftime talk, I said that is what it is about. I said, that’s a hunger and a drive that I want. I said about Isaiah, let’s all just hook our wagons to him and play with that kind of desire and that kind of will to just lay it on the line.”
“I think it hypes everybody up,” UVA’s Kyle Guy said of Wilkins’ hustle plays. “I mean that’s what he does best and he’s the best in the country at it, there’s no if, ands, or buts. He’s a tremendous player to play with and that just gets me all excited, so I think it does for the rest of the team too.”
Wilkins finished the game with six points, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, and two steals in 27 minutes. During the final 10 minutes of the first half, which included the sequence above, he posted four points, four rebounds, one assist, and one steal to play a key role in the surge before intermission.
As fans likely have grown to expect with Wilkins, however, he cared little about all the stat-stuffer questions afterward. He just wanted to go get the ball on that run of the mill 80-foot diving defensive rebound. He just wanted to play hard. And, of course, win.
“We won,” Wilkins said. ”I don’t even care about that stuff. As long as we’re winning.”
With Wilkins providing the whatever-it-takes spark, the Cavaliers pulled away to another comfortable win behind their usual formula of stingy defense and a balanced wear-you-down offense.
The Pirates ended the game shooting 25.9% from the floor, including a massive struggle inside the arc at 18.4% (7-38 on two-point attempts). Other than some hot 3-point shooting in the early going (the visitors posted 5-9 shooting from 3-point range in the first half for 55.6%) and a good night at the free throw line (13-15/86.7%), Hampton couldn’t sustain any success offensively. Jermaine Marrow was the only Pirate in double figures with 11 points.
On the other end of the floor, Virginia had eight players score six points or more. That included Wilkins, whose six points were matched by Jay Huff (four rebounds) and Mamadi Diakite (five rebounds). Devon Hall (four rebounds, two assists) and Nigel Johnson (four assists) added nine points each as well.
The big scoring nights came from Guy, Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter, though. Guy had a couple of bad misses early, but bounced back with 15 points in the end. Jerome tallied 10 points, three assists, and two steals, while Hunter added 14 points on 6-8 shooting. Hunter’s impressive night included a transition dunk that pleased the crowd. He let the defender fly by and ripped the ball over his head before rising up to throw it down.
”From the moment I got the ball, I knew what the defender was going to do because I saw him cutting across,” Hunter said. “I said once he tries to take it, I’m just going to rip over and dunk it. It played out perfectly.”
Virginia’s play in the non-conference portion of its schedule went close to plan as well. With Friday night’s victory, the Hoos wrapped up non-conference play with an 11-1 record. All but one of those wins came by 10 points or more and the only setback came on the road at West Virginia in a back-and-forth game.
The Cavaliers get a break for the holidays before they return to the court for ACC play. They open with Boston College at the JPJ on Saturday, Dec. 30 at 2 p.m. before facing rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina in the first eight days of league play as well.
“We’ve played well and we’ve done what we needed to do” Bennett said. ”We had a tight game against West Virginia and didn’t finish it the right way, but they’ll probably be enough of those [close games] in ACC play. … I’m happy with what we did and I know the tests will come and that’s why in practice we’re trying to work on situations, close situations, two minutes left up four or down four and different things you do. Of course, the competition will continue to step up in a league like the ACC.”