By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Back when Jason Williford played basketball at UVa, the team’s home was University Hall. It didn’t seat much more than 8,400, but when U-Hall was packed, as it often was in an era when the Cavaliers regularly advanced to the NCAA tournament, the joint rocked.
“It was electric,” recalled Williford, a 1995 graduate who’s now an assistant coach at his alma mater.
That adjective hasn’t been used much recently to describe the atmosphere at John Paul Jones Arena, into which the Wahoos moved after the 2005-06 season, but new coach Tony Bennett hopes that’s changing.
It took fans at JPJ awhile to find their voices Wednesday night. Once they did, though, the crowd played its role of sixth man to perfection.
“The fans really got into it. That’s what really helped us pull the game through,” sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg said after Virginia rallied to beat 24th-ranked UAB 72-63.
The Blazers’ coach also singled out UVa supporters.
“We scheduled this game because we thought the crowd would be bad, with no students here, and that would give us an edge,” Mike Davis said. “But they came out of the woodwork tonight and gave the team a lot of energy. It’s not a home-court advantage unless you have a good crowd, and they had one here tonight.”
Bennett said: “What I appreciated the most was that the fans acknowledged and appreciated some good defensive stands. And that, to me, brings more joy than anything. They recognize when the guys were working and sliding.”
No Cavalier works harder on defense than Jontel Evans. The first-year point guard had two superlative steals against UAB, and his effort was not lost on the crowd.
“I always say, when your point guard can heat up the ball, not only does it ignite your team and start your defense, but I think the fans can see that too,” Bennett said Thursday. “They really got revved up when they saw a few good defensive possessions, and it gave us a nice lift. That’s what a home-court advantage is.”
The volume increased dramatically in the second half as UVa (7-4) battled back from a seven-point deficit, peaking perhaps when senior center Jerome Meyinsse was fouled for a questionable call with 11:31 left.
Fans howled in disbelief. Bennett, with associate head coach Ritchie McKay holding him back, informed the officials loudly and clearly that he agreed with the crowd.
In the end, though, the call helped the ‘Hoos. UAB’s Kenneth Cooper missed his two free throws, and fans stayed engaged the rest of the way.
“The energy was incredible,” Williford said.
“It was an awesome atmosphere,” junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan said. “Words can’t even describe how it felt out there. It was beautiful. Hopefully that can continue. It really helped energize the players.”
The arena can get louder. The official attendance of 9,444 was the second-largest of the season for a men’s game — the opener drew 10,787 — but well under the capacity of 14,593. UVa’s next game is Tuesday night against Texas-Pan American at JPJ.
“Can I envision what it’s like if you have it packed?” Bennett said. “I guess I can’t yet, but I’m excited to, hopefully.”
Large and raucous crowds were the norm during UVa’s inaugural season at JPJ. In 2006-07, the Cavaliers’ average attendance there was 13,521, and fans had plenty to cheer. Led by guards Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, the ‘Hoos won a share of the ACC’s regular-season title and later advanced to the NCAA tourney’s second round.
In 2007-08, however, the program’s slide began, and fans started to lose interest in then-coach Dave Leitao’s program. In a season when they won only five ACC games and finished 17-16 overall, the Cavaliers averaged 11,705 at home.
In 2008-09, average attendance for men’s games at JPJ dropped to 10,219, and the team’s record plummeted to 10-18. UVa parted ways with Leitao last spring, but fans have been slow to return to JPJ.
Through seven home games, the average attendance is 8,727. Students will be back on Grounds soon, though, and the start of ACC play is looming, so attendance figures to pick up.
The players can’t wait.
“I think [fans] play a bigger role than they might know,” Landesberg said. “Just being able to distract the opposing team while they’re shooting free throws or just making so much noise when they’re on offense, is really distracting. They can’t really hear the plays that are being called.
“And on our end, when we hear them cheering for us like that, it really pumps us up and gets us excited.”
Bennett said fan support at JPJ is critically important, “especially with the talent of the ACC. Any X-factor you can get, you need. Any little advantage is significant. So we need that. That was without the students [Wednesday night], so it was nice to see.
“I always appreciate people that come and support us even when we’re not ranked, we’re not the finished product at all, but people that are faithful and loyal fans. That’s one of my motivations: hopefully in time to really reward them with a high level of basketball.
“It’s not there consistently yet, but our hope is in time, over the years, those who are faithful now will really be rewarded later on.”