For Virginia fans needing a pandemic panacea of some sort, the return of the UVA basketball team delivered some relief Wednesday in its much-anticipated return. The Cavaliers debuted with movement and space on offense, a deep rotation, and the same stingy defense as they throttled Towson, 89-54, at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
In the end, the Hoos shot 57.6% overall and 51.7% from 3-point range, dished out 17 assists with only 6 turnovers, and had seven players with at least 5 points. They scored the most points in a season opener for the Tony Bennett era.
Playing the day before Thanksgiving, the Wahoos were grateful to have a chance to play even if the stands are empty and the opponents unexpectedly change. They were initially scheduled to face Maine until Tuesday afternoon.
“I tell our guys all the time, just remain grateful and thankful that it’s beaten the alternative,” Bennett said. “Yeah, the fans weren’t there. Yes, we’ve had for a while to practice with masks on, and they haven’t been able to have the interaction and the contact as normal, but a blessing to be able to practice, to be there and then start this journey. So that’s sort of the attitude and just be as good as we can with what’s given to us. I think our guys have embraced that.”
Facing the nation’s No. 4 team on short notice proved to be a difficult assignment for the Tigers and that task only grew more challenging when the Cavaliers opened the season with more spread offense elements and Rice transfer Trey Murphy III immediately eligible with a NCAA waiver granted on the previous day. UVA took advantage of both things.
Running an offense with 5-out principles and a variety of movement and cutters in addition to some of their traditional mover-blocker sets, the Hoos created opportunities at the rim and behind the arc. They capitalized efficiently from each location. They made 14 of 20 attempts on layups and dunks (70% for 28 points), including a pair of alley-oops to Jay Huff. Virginia also canned 15 of 29 3-point attempts, including a scorching 8 of 13 first half (61.5%) that helped stun Towson.
Murphy and Marquette transfer Sam Hauser combined with Huff to do much of the long-range shooting damage. Murphy made 6 of 8 3-point attempts to lead UVA with 21 points coming off the bench. Hauser hit 3 of 3 triples as part of a 7-of-9 shooting day overall. He filled the stat sheet with 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists.
The two transfers quickly entered the spotlight for Virginia. Their versatility raised fan enthusiasm on the message boards and other social media. In addition to the 9 3-pointers they combined to make, both players flashed other skills to. Hauser scored from the mid-post area, on an offensive rebound, and at the free throw line. Murphy’s other bucket was a driving two-handed dunk that fired up his teammates and he made the and-one free throw to go with it.
“They played well, they’ve showed that in practice,” Bennett said. “You know we found out [Tuesday] before a practice that Trey received his waiver to play so we were so thankful for that and excited. Sam’s been patient and sat out last year and made the most of his redshirt year and his maturity showed on the floor. Obviously, we shot the ball well and did some good things but great having them, you could see our depth and it was, you know, a nice outing. I was so happy. This is my 12th year at Virginia and, and whenever you see guys the first time, they’re wearing the Virginia uniform and they get to play in a game, that’s really special. So I appreciate that no matter if it’s a walk-on or anybody so I really enjoyed that part of it.”
Both players were excited to get back in a game.
“I mean all of last year I was chomping at the bit to get back on the court and play with these guys and it’s just, it’s a relief to be back out there playing with my new teammates,” Hauser said. “There was a lot of emotions running through my head yesterday and this morning before the game, but I’m just excited that we’re able to play and I hope everything works out so we can play Friday again.”
“It was just really exciting to play,” Murphy said. “We’re playing against each other for so long. We had been going at it for about four months or so. And it was just fun to play against other guys and play with my teammates. So that was the main thing.”
Huff, meanwhile, opened the season with a 3-pointer just 16 seconds into the game. He made 2 of 3 attempts from downtown as part of a performance that produced 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots. He added a post bucket that included a series of pivots as well.
A frontcourt that features three players listed at 6’8”, 6’9”, and 7’1” that can each hit the 3-point shot efficiently and do other things on the floor was simply too much for Towson.
“We’re grateful to be playing. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Tigers coach Pat Skerry said. “This is like kind of getting thrown into the water with the sharks right away so we’ll learn from it, but they’re very good. They’re different than they’ve been right now because of their ability to play five-out and their four and five men really, really shoot the basketball. I was more disappointed, we’re usually a pretty good defensive team. We’ve got a lot of work to do in that area.”
While that trio provided the double-digit scoring punch, the Cavaliers spread the wealth elsewhere. Kody Stattmann and Kihei Clark posted 8 points and 7 points, respectively, with all of that coming in the second half. Clark added 3 assists and 1 blocked shot. Casey Morsell and Tomas Woldetensae added 5 points each, while freshmen Reece Beekman and Jabri Abdur-Rahim chipped in 3 each. Morsell and Beekman each had 2 steals. Justin McKoy got the start and put up 2 points, a team-leading 5 defensive rebounds, and 3 assists. Kadin Shedrick made his debut with 2 points too.
The rotation for the blowout win saw 9 players log 12+ minutes and Shedrick got 9 minutes as well.
The coaches had mentioned expanded depth during the preseason and Bennett said after the game that the Hoos didn’t even work with a specific starting five for parts of the expanded preseason because the roster creates a lot of competition in practice settings. The rotation could ebb and flow during the season as well.
Bennett said he has encouraged the team to just stay focused regardless of the rotation.
“As I mentioned, we have depth. Our depth, I talked to the guys before last night, our depth can really be good, and I think in practice it’s made it competitive,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to keep figuring things out, different guys at different times so we can’t let our depth become a distraction. So, the hardest thing for me in coaching, I’ve set it often, is not being able to play guys because they work so hard and they want to play. But opportunities will present themselves. To play all those different matchups today and rotations was really good.”
Defensively, Virginia got off to a good start and finished with a decent, but less effective second half. Before intermission, the Hoos shut down the Tigers and allowed just 19 points. Towson shot 29.2% in the first half (7-24) with 5 turnovers. Most of the shots created during that half were well contested by UVA defenders.
In the second half, the Tigers shot 44% (11-25), committed 0 turnovers, and produced 12 free throw trips (9-12/75%). That resulted in a 35-point half. More players got into the action for UVA during the second half and some of the breakdowns can be attributed to that, especially with fouls leading to free throws but even the starting group stumbled in the first 2:04 when Towson came out on an 8-0 run courtesy of an offensive rebound putback, a 3-pointer, and a transition 3-pointer off a turnover. That drew a timeout from Bennett.
That’s an area that Bennett will focus on obviously and the coaches have said in media interviews during the preseason that the defense is still a work in progress.
“Overall I think we played pretty well on that end of the floor,” Hauser said. “We had a really good talk, having no fans, and the talk and you have to bring your own energy. I think coach hit it on the head, our first four or five minutes of second half we were kind of loose and we got to pick that up for the games coming up to set ourselves up for a W.”