For the second straight game to start the season, the Virginia basketball team struggled to find its shooting stroke against zone defense. For the second straight game, that didn’t matter much.
The Cavaliers dominated defensively and controlled the glass to easily win their home opener Sunday night as they dispatched JMU, 65-34. The Hoos became inhospitable hosts in the second half in particular as they allowed just 11 points on 16.0% shooting in the final 20 minutes, the lowest opponent output in the second half in the history of the John Paul Jones Arena. That came with the trio of Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, and Kihei Clark sitting out for much of the final 7 to 11 minutes respectively.
James Madison coach Louis Rowe had an easy explanation for what happened after halftime. Virginia raised its level of play.
“They turned it up at every level,” Rowe said. “The Pack-Line got tighter, forcing us to take a bunch of outside shots. We weren’t getting to the rim and when we got to the rim their size affected everything, their size and athleticism affected everything. As much as you think prepare for it, we’re running our offense and we’re moving and we’re trying to execute. But, they’re really good at what they do and they have great length and athleticism, and again, we’re talking about a really, really good team and I am very thankful that we get to take a challenge like this.”
Indeed, the Dukes scored just four baskets inside the 3-point arc all night and just one of those came after halftime. Yes, you read that right. JMU hit just 4 of 25 shots in the second half, which broke down to 3-of-14 shooting (21.4%) from 3-point range and 1-of-11 shooting (9.0%) inside the 3-point line. Overall, the visitors shot 24.0% from the field (12-50) with 27.6% from 3-point range (8-29) and 19.0% (4-21) inside the arc. Throw in 19 turnovers and it was a rough night against UVA’s defense.
The Cavaliers added to the Dukes’ difficulties by closing down the glass. They held a 46-35 edge in rebounding that was actually +12 in the second half. After JMU managed 5 offensive rebounds in the first half, they only got 2 more after that.
That all adds up to another night where the Hoos allowed just 34 points to hit the scoreboard. UVA has held its first two opponents to fewer than 40 points for the first time in the shot clock era and for the first time since the 1943-44 season.
“Everyone says that we are a young team and we kind of are, but I think the Pack-Line went really well,” the Cavaliers’ Jay Huff said. “It would be cool if to keep a streak of 34-point games consistently.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett, however, said it is too early to tell if that defense is a harbinger for the entire season ahead.
“It’s too small of a sample size,” Bennett said. “I know we have to play good defense, as I told them before the game, it’s not always going to be pretty but it has to be gritty. There’re so many possessions during the game and the defense has to hold you in there when shots aren’t falling or you’re not as adept offensively. It’s about the ability to challenge shots. I knew we do have size, and JMU was a different challenge than Syracuse because they played four guards and they spread it out. They’re a heavy three-point shooting team and I think our length at times bothered them. It was solid defensively but it’s too early to tell.”
The Hoos probably hope the same sample size barometer applies to their own shooting struggles through two games.
After shooting 40.8% overall (20-49) and 16.0% from 3-point range (4-25) at Syracuse in the season opener, Virginia put up similar numbers back at home. The Cavaliers shot 38.2% overall (26-68) and an identical 16.0% from 3-point range (4-25) against the Dukes on Sunday. Both opponents played zone defense, though the 2-3 presented itself in different styles between the two, for the majority of the game.
Against JMU, the Cavaliers turned to offensive rebounding to help erase some of the concerns. They grabbed 14 O-Boards and turned that into 20 second chance points. Unsurprisingly, the team’s three biggest scorers on the night had 3 offensive rebounds each. Diakite and Key used that to help fuel individual double-doubles, while Huff came close to that mark as well.
Key finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. He didn’t suffer from the same shooting woes as the team did overall as he made 5 of 8 shots overall, 2 of 3 triples, and both of his free throw attempts. He added 2 assists and 1 steal. Huff, meanwhile, came off the bench and added 11 points and 7 rebounds on 5-of-6 shooting. He also had 2 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocked shots.
Diakite, meanwhile, flashed his expanded game and leadership role in a big way. He poured in 19 points and 13 rebounds on the night to set career-highs in both categories. He made 8 of 16 shots, which included a 3-pointer to open the game’s scoring. He also added 2 blocked shots and a steal. That doesn’t do much justice to how well he played defensively as he was active everywhere and challenged multiple drives and shots throughout.
Rowe heaped praise on Diakite afterward.
“Well he’s talented, he’s skilled. I think he’s great in space, moves really well, comfortable at his position, at 15-17 feet open the game with a three. He rips and drives, great finisher, smooth, has good feel. What? Do you want anymore?” Rowe said with a smile. “He is very, very good, he is a very talented young man. He has it all, I hear Serge Ibaka type stuff, you know? And it’s the truth, he has that type of package. He’s coming into his own, I think he blossomed last year around the big three. He got confidence, he worked his way into being a guy that they count on, hit the shot to win the game for them. I was a player once too, I understand the energy that is behind that, you gain more and more confidence. That is a very confident and talented guy right there.”
Diakite and the Hoos return to action on Saturday at noon against Columbia.