This is the perfect time for a quick quip or a headline pun about squeezing the Orange. The Virginia basketball team, after all, opened its new season with a suffocating defensive performance against Syracuse on Wednesday night. That helped the Hoos secure a 48-34 win that kept Tony Bennett undefeated in ACC openers in his tenure.
Go ahead and read that again. 48-34. The Cavaliers gave up just 34 points in the Carrier Dome. That represented the first time in more than six years that Cuse scored less than 40 points (61-39 loss to Georgetown in March 2013). Those were also the fewest total points scored by the Orange in 75 years (49-28 loss to Navy in January 1945). Understandably, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and company were frustrated after the loss.
“We just are not ready to play against that defense,” Boeheim said. “I thought we were going to be a little better, but we just didn’t do the things we needed to offensively. They are very difficult to play against. They’re in the top two or three defensive teams every year. You don’t want to play them in the first game. Offenses take a little bit more time.”
Overall, UVA held Syracuse to just 23.6%, which included 17.2% from 3-point range. The Orange managed just 16 points in the paint and only 9 second chance points as they tried to solve the Pack-Line defense. Elijah Hughes was the only player to reach double figures with 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting; he made 3 of 10 shots from beyond the arc to fuel his final line. Buddy Boeheim added 7 points and Marek Dolezaj chipped in 4 more as the only other players with more than one bucket in the game.
The Orange had trouble creating too many openings on the night in general. With a perimeter-oriented roster that created few if any post-up attempts, they needed to use movement and screening to get better looks and simply didn’t do enough of either to get going. That put a lot of pressure on players to make long jumpers and they connected on just 5 of 29 attempts from downtown.
The refrain from Syracuse’s players sounded familiar to Cavalier fans.
“You can’t really prepare for it, until you really see it,” Cuse freshman Joe Girard said. “You know each and every day in practice you are going against the same guys and you don’t really understand what it’s like until you really go against it in a real-life game, in a real-style game. Credit to them, they played really great defense, I think so did we, that’s one of the positives but like you said we have to put the ball in the hoop a lot more only putting up 34 points its going to be really hard to beat anybody like that.”
The game was rough around the edges in general on offense as the Hoos struggled on that end of the floor as well. They shot just 40.8% overall from the floor (20-49) and 16.0% from 3-point range (4-25). Virginia also had trouble protecting the ball against a combination of Syracuse’s standard 2-3 zone and some fullcourt pressure. The visitors committed 16 turnovers with 10 of those coming in the first half.
UVA made up for its shooting woes, however, by getting some attempts closer to the rim and by dominating the glass.
The Cavaliers scored 26 points in the paint behind their frontcourt strength. Mamadi Diakite led the way with 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting as he looked completely under control throughout the night. He also had 6 boards. Jay Huff chipped in a double-double of 11 points and 12 rebounds, while Braxton Key added 7 points and 10 rebounds. The fourth member of UVA’s experienced quartet, Kihei Clark, flirted with a triple-double of 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists as he played all 40 minutes.
All of the rebounds within those stat lines helped Virginia post a 47-28 edge on the glass.
“The defense and the rebounding was significant for us,” Bennett said. “Those were two very new, inexperienced teams playing. You saw some struggles from both teams. … But our ability to defend and rebound, that’s what won us the game. I think our size and length was effective at times.”
With the victory, Bennett improved to 11-0 in ACC openers in his Virginia tenure. Like many of the ACC wins prior to the 2019-2020 season opener, defense became the story of the day. That’s where some of UVA’s less experienced players made some positive impressions too.
Sophomore Kody Stattmann came off the bench for 21 minutes of work and caught the eye of many fans with his positioning and effort on the defensive end. Stattmann clearly gained some strength through his first season in Charlottesville and that helped on that end. He also chipped in 5 points with a 3-pointer and a reverse layup. True freshman Casey Morsell ended up in the starting lineup and played 26 minutes. The defense in his debut showed why. Morsell helped pester Hughes for much of the night and he was able to keep things in front of him with on-ball defense. Morsell’s stat line for the night finished at 3 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 blocked shot.
“I think he was well prepared from his high school and AAU days,” Bennett said of Morsell’s defense. “He can spread out and guard the ball. He is physical and he understands that about himself – that’s his identity. Hopefully he’ll get more comfortable offensively. He had his hands full and that’s the challenge we put before him and I thought he did a good job.”