By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If he’d turned around to look, Tony Bennett might have seen a pained expression on his father’s face for long stretches of the second half Friday night.
“I’m sure he’ll have some advice for me,” Bennett said afterward, smiling.
His parents, Dick and Anne, were seated a few rows behind the home bench for their son’s debut as men’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia.
Throughout Dick Bennett’s illustrious coaching career, his teams were known for their unwavering commitment to defense. Tony Bennett shares that philosophy, and his Cavaliers may one day excel in that part of the game.
But they’re not there yet, as those who watched the Wahoos beat Longwood 85-72 will attest. Second-half defensive lapses marred the first of what Bennett hopes will be many victories at John Paul Jones Arena.
Asked what his mentor — his father — would think of the Cavaliers’ defense, Bennett smiled and shook his head.
“I’m not going home,” he said. “I’m staying in the locker room tonight. No, I don’t think he’ll be real proud of that defensive performance, but that’s all right. He’s an old retired coach. We don’t have to listen to him, right?”
Dick Bennett and the other UVa fans in the crowd of 10,787 saw plenty to applaud in the first half. Virginia went into the break ahead 49-27 after shooting 58.6 percent from the floor and, equally important, holding Longwood to 40-percent accuracy.
In the second half, however, the Lancers hit 17 of 31 field-goal attempts (54.8 percent) and cut their deficit to eight before the Wahoos pulled away again.
“We definitely got way too comfortable,” said sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg, who scored a game-high 23 points. “We got lazy. We were taking things for granted, and they just started hitting shot after shot and getting themselves back in the game.”
Bennett said: “We struggled a little bit defensively in the second half. That might be an understatement. They got us on our heels. They hit some tough 3’s, but to give up that many points, that was discouraging. The guys did finish, but there’s no secret, we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s going to be a long journey that way.”
With two of his post players unavailable for the opener — 7-0 sophomore Assane Sene is suspended for the first three games, and 6-9 senior Jamil Tucker is on a personal leave of absence — Bennett started a smaller lineup. Down low was 6-8 junior Mike Scott. Surrounding him were four perimeter players: the 6-6 Landesberg, 6-4 juniors Jeff Jones and Mustapha Farrakhan and 6-0 sophomore Sammy Zeglinski.
All five scored in double figures, and Scott grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds. Virginia shot a torrid 60 percent from the floor, but its offense wasn’t flawless. UVa finished with more turnovers (16) than assists (14). Eleven of those turnovers came in the second half.
In the locker room afterward, Bennett said, he threw a question at his players.
“I said, ‘What do you think happened there in the second half. Do you think that was a good enough effort on the defensive end, the offensive end?’ To a man they said, ‘No, it wasn’t.’ They know we have to improve.”
In Bennett’s three seasons as Washington State’s head coach — he succeeded his father in Pullman — his teams ranked among the nation’s best in scoring defense and worst in scoring offense.
Fans who showed up Friday night expecting a game in the 50s might have been surprised to see the ‘Hoos score 85, but Bennett’s players weren’t.
“His offense is not really slowdown like everybody’s saying,” Landesberg said. “He gives us a lot of freedom on the offensive end. He’s just real strict on the defensive end. He wants things done his way, and we didn’t do it in the second half.”
UVa’s inability to stop Longwood’s post players, 6-7 Billy Robinson Jr. and 6-6 Antawn Carter, disappointed Bennett. Robinson and Carter were a combined 14 for 18 from the floor.
“They made it look easy at times to score against our defense,” Bennett said. “It got porous. We got stretched.”
At the other end, UVa made Longwood look bad on defense for much of the night. Farrakhan matched his career high with 17 points, two of which came on his first dunk as a Cavalier, and Zeglinski hit four 3-pointers. Jones, after a slow start, scored eight points in an efficient second half.
“Some of those looks we might not get as the season progresses,” Bennett said, “but you have to take advantage of opportunities and play to your strengths when you can.”
Still, he added, “I know and you know, we’re not going to be able to just outscore people and race up and down, and our players understand that. But I think you have to ride hot hands and take opportunities when they’re there. I also know your defense has to hold you in there.”
UVa’s next opponent — Big East member South Florida — figures to pose a greater challenge. The teams meet Monday night in Tampa.
“It’s definitely going to be a test to see where we’re at,” Zeglinski said. “It’s a quick turnaround, so we gotta learn from this and apply it to the next game.”
His first game at UVa behind him, Bennett admitted he’d been a little nervous, “wondering how we were going to show here. Felt good at halftime and didn’t feel so good in the second half.”
Overall, though, it was an exciting night in a beautiful arena that he can’t wait to see packed with fans, Bennett said.
“I’m excited for the future and know that there will be some growing pains. But I’m glad the first one is under our belts, and we’ll just try to get better from it.”