Following an unusual loss during Thanksgiving week, the Virginia basketball team quickly got back on track Tuesday. Playing its first home game of the season, UVA jumped on St. Francis (Pa.) early and cruised to a 76-51 win at the John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers have won 24 straight home openers.
The bounce-back victory may not have erased the upset loss to San Francisco from Friday when the Hoos had more turnovers than assists and struggled with consistency on both ends, but it was the type of performance that the team needed to continue sharpening its play early in the season. The Cavaliers outscored the Red Flash 40-18 in the paint, which included a 26-2 advantage in the first half when they dealt the early knockout punch.
“I guess it goes without saying that was an area of focus the last four days,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “I really was pleased with our first half of playing. Now, St. Francis, they were without their key guard, and that when he played well, that’s how they beat Pitt. So that was a big blow to them and I’m always realistic. But we played really good basketball defensively and offensively in the first half. And we got on the glass, as you mentioned. We touched the paint, scored in the paint and offensive rebounds, so that that was good to see, and just moved in, tried to do what we could. So I think that was a step in the right direction, in the first half. Second half, not so much, but first half.”
The absence of Ramiir Dixon-Conover, who had 21 points in his team’s 80-70 win against Pittsburgh, almost certainly had an impact on St. Francis, but Virginia’s defense served up a suffocating first half and that knocked the visitors off their stride as much as anything. The Red Flash managed just 13 points in the first half and while that’s impressive, it wasn’t even the low mark for this calendar year. Virginia held Virginia Tech to 11 points in the first half back on February 26 during last season’s winning streak to close the season.
The Hoos allowed just 17.4% shooting overall (4-23) and 14.3% shooting from 3-point range (2-14) in the opening 20 minutes. St. Francis hit a transition 3-pointer for part of its points, scored just once in the paint, and managed no second chance points. The Red Flash further hurt their cause with 3-of-6 shooting at the free throw line in the first half. In other words, there weren’t many easy points to come by and Virginia sprinted out to a 45-13 lead as a result. That’s the largest halftime margin for the program since it led Grambling State 49-9 on November 22, 2016.
Bennett still wants more consistency on that end of the floor, though. St. Francis put up 38 points in the second half on 51.9% shooting overall (14-27) and 50% shooting from 3-point range (5-10). The visitors scored 16 points in the paint and 7 second chance points. That comes on the heels of Friday’s game where San Francisco scored 40 points in the second half on 51.7% shooting (60% from 3). Even Towson in UVA’s season-opening blowout win scored 35 points after intermission with 44% shooting (50% from 3).
“In the first half yes. They outscored us 38-31 in the second half, and I felt we had again – we didn’t last or we weren’t persistent enough defensively,” Bennett said. “There were breakdowns, and so they outplayed us in the second half but at least you have to say ‘alright, this is what it looks like and how we do it.’ I thought we were pretty good defensively in the first half against San Francisco, pretty good against Towson, both second halves [were not as good] so this team has to continue to find the ability to battle and we’ve got to be better and better as the competition goes up and all due respect, and I acknowledge that they were without their top guy.”
While UVA’s defense helped overwhelm St. Francis early, the Cavaliers were clicking on offense too. They scored 70+ points for the second time in three games, a plateau they reached just twice in 30 contests last season. They shot 66.7% overall in the first half and 51.7% overall in the game. They did make just 5 of 22 3-pointers (22.7%), but with a significant advantage in the frontcourt it didn’t matter.
Virginia got 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots from Jay Huff, who made 6 of 7 shots. That included many easy dunks at the rim. Huff is now in a tie for 8th on the program’s all-time blocks list with 108. Kadin Shedrick came off the bench behind Huff for career highs of 12 points and 8 rebounds in his third career game after redshirting last season. Starters Sam Hauser and Justin McKoy contributed too. Hauser added 11 points and 6 rebounds and made 5 of 7 shots, while McKoy had 7 points and made 2 of 3 shots. Trey Murphy III also posted 10 points and 4 rebounds in a reserve role. The increased paint production came as the Cavaliers moved back to their traditional ‘sides’ motion concept vs. heavy use of a new 5-out system in the first two games.
In addition to the scheme shuffle, Bennett also made the decision to start freshman Reece Beekman and senior Tomas Woldetensae in the backcourt in place of junior Kihei Clark and sophomore Casey Morsell. Both Beekman and Woldetensae responded well to the change. Beekman had just 2 points, but he dished out 4 assists with 0 turnovers and chipped in 3 steals as well. Woldetensae matched him with 4 helpers and added 8 points that included 2-4 shooting from 3-point range. Morsell scored 7 points including two drives with reverse layups, while Clark had 0 points to go with 3 assists and 3 turnovers.
Overall, it was a balanced effort with seven players providing 7 points or more and five players handing out multiple assists. The Hoos have had a different leading scorer in each of the three games thus far and Tuesday’s game actually saw Bennett use hockey style platoons with substitutions. The trick, of course, is getting all of those moving parts to play consistently.
“You know it’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team with this many players,” Huff said. “That’s really cool because we get to see a lot of guys, a lot of combinations. We just get to see how different guys work. And I think learning play with everybody is something that we’re going to have to figure out and I think we’re learning how to do that. We have a really young team. We have a lot of young guys that, you know, haven’t necessarily been here as long as you know an old man like me. So, trying to teach them just the principles and the pack line and all of that, you know it’s a lot of teaching through learning and through just guys that have to go through that fire I guess to learn the lessons that need to.”