The old saying goes “Everything is bigger in Texas.” On Saturday in Fort Worth, the cracks in the defensive foundation for the Virginia basketball team certainly seemed bigger than they have at most times during the Tony Bennett era. Top-ranked Gonzaga exposed the Hoos repeatedly in a run-away 98-75 win at Dickies Arena.
The Zags led wire to wire as they added another top 20 win to their resume. They’ve also defeated Kansas, West Virginia, and Iowa early this season. For Virginia, on the other hand, this was the first marquee game of the season after scheduled contests with Florida, Michigan State, and Villanova were cancelled due to coronavirus complications. It appeared that maybe the Hoos weren’t ready for the tall task at hand. With the loss, the program fell to 1-31 all-time against top-ranked opponents.
“I think we, had the right mindset in trying to come back, but yeah, I definitely think that a couple of us were scared,” Cavalier junior Kihei Clark said. “I don’t know if it was because we were playing Gonzaga or the moment, but you could kind of feel it a little bit.”
The Bulldogs jumped on the Cavaliers immediately. They started the game on a 7-0 run that proved to be a tale of things to come. Corey Kispert dished an assist on the first basket and then followed up with a 3-pointer to make it a two-possession game instantly. Moments later, Drew Timme earned a trip to the line and made both free throws. The lead only grew from there. Kispert and Timme kept it rolling for the rest of the first half, scoring 33 of their team’s 44 points before intermission.
By the five-minute mark, Gonzaga led 13-3. A brief flurry from Virginia made it 18-12 with 12:55 to go in the opening half, but that was as close as the Hoos ever got. The Zags led 29-16 just after the 10:00 mark and 44-24 with two minutes left before intermission. Only a 7-0 run from UVA to end the half gave a glimmer of hope, but that evaporated after halftime.
In the end, this game easily fell into the “worst of” nominees for defensive efforts in the Bennett era. The 44 points in the first half represented the most points scored in the first half against Virginia since the Louisville game last season on Feb. 8. By the end of the contest, the 98 points stood as the second most allowed under Bennett at UVA. The Bulldogs also posted 60.3% shooting (35-58), the highest number allowed in Bennett’s tenure.
Long story short: it was a long day on defense.
“I think we were kind of playing selfishly on the defensive end, not helping each other,” Clark said. “They just, I don’t know. The actions that they ran, it just put us in tough spots and we just didn’t do what we practiced, pretty much.”
Kispert finished with a game-high 32 points as he dominated the game from beyond the arc. He made 9 of 13 3-pointers and 11 of 15 shots overall to get to his total. That’s tied for the second most 3-pointers all time in a game against Virginia. He also had 3 assists. Timme collected another 29 points for the Zags, putting in 9 of 15 shots and 11 of 13 free throws on the day. He added 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 1 blocked shot.
Gonzaga also got 8 points each from Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi plus 7 more from Andrew Nembhard. Suggs and Nembhard carved up the defense with their passing, though. Nembhard dished out 8 assists, while Suggs had 7 helpers of his own. Many of those passes came from screen or hand-off actions followed by hard rolls from Timme. If the defense got stretched, Timme was often open at the rim. If the defense got stuck helping inside, that left open looks for Kispert and others.
With the cohesive help-oriented look of most Bennett-led Virginia defenses, the Hoos needed better individual efforts to stay afloat. They didn’t get that either. The Zags repeatedly broke down solo defenders as well.
“They’re very dangerous offensively, the way they can, when Kispert gets going like that. Timme’s a handful in the post, he can score,” Bennett said. “If you go and trap them, they got guys out there that boom they’re set, ready to shoot it. They score so well in transition, 25 percent of their scoring is in transition and we help that even more with the turnovers. A lot of breakdowns, we had a lot of trouble on ball screen defense. We’re so worried about our guys, we were stretching and there was layups at the rim. And then when we stayed too long, we left guys wide open. So they had us every time and that was hard. Anytime we got a little momentum, it was either a turnover or they just got an easy bucket. We haven’t guarded well this year yet. And that’s something we got to just keep trying to do. We lost a lot in the defensive side of things and that’s some place we got to shore up and keep getting better.”
To overcome such a disastrous defensive outing, the offense needed to be perfect. While the boxscore ended up with decent numbers, it was far from perfect. That was especially true early as turnovers caused immediate problems that continued throughout the first half. The Cavaliers coughed up the ball on the first three possessions of the game as the Bulldogs built that quick 7-0 lead. On the first possession, Reece Beekman missed on an attempted post feed to Sam Hauser. On the second, Kihei Clark drove baseline and tried to drop off a pass in the lane to Hauser that was intercepted. On the next trip, Jay Huff tried to reverse the ball back to Clark but an aggressive play by Suggs stole the ball.
The Wahoos had 9 turnovers in the first half that led to 19 points. By the end of the second half, that had climbed to 15 turnovers that led to 27 points. They managed to shake off those issues to get to 75 points on solid shooting numbers. They finished at 48.15% shooting (26-54) that included 50% (14-28) in the second half. They made 10 of 25 3-pointers (40%) and 13 of 16 free throws (81.25%) too.
Clark led the Cavaliers with 19 points on 7-14 shooting to go with 4 assists. He finished with 6 turnovers, though. Trey Murphy III added 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal. He made 4 of 6 3-pointers as he continues to lead the team in that category. Hauser chipped in 10 points on a rough shooting day (3-11 overall, 0-4 from 3), while Huff added 9 points despite playing only 13 minutes due to foul trouble. Casey Morsell and Tomas Woldetensae added 8 and 6 points, respectively.
None of that was enough as Gonzaga got pretty much anything they wanted on the other end. As a result, the Cavaliers fell to 4-2 on the season with both losses coming to teams from the West Coast Conference. With the preliminary non-conference games now complete, the Hoos have a short break to try to get ready for ACC play. They travel to Notre Dame on Wednesday, Dec. 30 for a 6 p.m. tipoff on the ACC Network.
Bennett sees a lot of work ahead for this year’s group.
“It was about soundness and toughness. Gonzaga, you just could feel it,” Bennett said. “I thought for some guys it was a bit overwhelming, for some it was new experiences and some it was like we just we got to fight everything, you got to do those things we talked about. Then we start second half, turnover boom, they’re down there and it just, we couldn’t get a handle on things. So they had us pretty much most possessions. I was hoping we would get off to a better start to be in it, but I don’t think we were. We didn’t have a place in that game today. We didn’t. We couldn’t stop them for consecutive times and make them earn, and then offensively we touched the paint and did some things. I know the guys, it’s hard, but now we go to work.”