By Jeff White
EUGENE, Ore. — Outwardly at least, Tony Bennett is slow to anger. But his displeasure is apparent to all when Bennett sees his basketball team allowing baskets in transition, as UVa did several times in the first half Sunday against Oregon.
The Ducks led 30-28 at the break, and Virginia was fortunate to be that close.
“That was crazy,” UVa point guard Jontel Evans said. “The first half, they were killing us in transition, and that’s what Coach preached the whole break [for final exams] and on the plane ride up here: ‘You gotta get back in transition.’ “
Bennett was “pretty upset with us in the first half,” sophomore swingman Joe Harris said.
By game’s end, Bennett’s mood was much better, and for good reason. The Wahoos left Matthew Knight Arena with a 67-54 victory and a 9-1 record: their best start since 2003-04.
“To play as a team like this on the road, it’s a great win for us,” said senior forward Mike Scott, who totaled 17 points and 13 rebounds, both game highs, and went 7 for 7 from the line.
“It gives us a lot of confidence. But we still have Seattle to play, so we’re going to celebrate this tonight and get back to work tomorrow.”
Virginia visits Seattle (2-7) at 10 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday.
Oregon, which lost at John Paul Jones Arena last season in a game that Scott missed with an ankle injury, fell to 6-3. Senior guard Devoe Joseph, a transfer from Minnesota, was the only Oregon player to score in double figures Sunday. He had 16 points in 29 minutes off the bench.
The rest of the Ducks were a combined 16 for 42 from the floor. After shooting 46.2 percent from the floor in the first half, Oregon hit only 39.3 percent of its attempts the rest of the way. The Ducks came in averaging 73.5 points, and UVa had not allowed an opponent to score more than 58 points this season.
Something had to give, and it was Oregon. After Garrett Sim’s 3-pointer pulled the Ducks to 45-43 with 10:57 left, the ‘Hoos blew the game open with a 16-4 run.
As Evans noted, there are “always two halves to a game,” and the Cavaliers dominated the final 20 minutes. At some point in virtually every game this season, Virginia’s opponent has wilted against the Pack Line defense that retired coaching legend Dick Bennett passed on to his son, and so it was again Sunday.
“I thought our transition defense stunk in the first half, and then we recommitted to it in the second half,” Bennett said. “I said [to the team], ‘If we’re going to have a chance in this game, they’ve got to play against a set defense.’ Which is what we work on and talk about. They’re good in transition, and it was almost like we had to recalibrate, and we had to get ourselves in a better situation. Not just being back, but being alert to where they were once we were back.
“You can never assume, just because we’re a good defensive team, that it’s going to be there, unless you’re really almost foaming at the mouth and ready to play.”
Not only was this the Cavaliers’ first road test of the season, it was their first game in 12 days. Whatever the reason, Virginia looked out of sync at both ends for most of the first half.
It didn’t help that the Pac-12 officiating crew called 11 fouls on UVa in the first half, to three on Oregon.
Before Sunday, Virginia had not shot fewer than 17 free throws in a game this season. The Cavaliers attempted only 13 (and made 11) against Oregon. All came in the second half. The Ducks, by contrast, shot 10 free throws in the first half, the final 7:30 of which Scott watched from the bench with two fouls.
Perhaps the officials saw the halftime stats. In the first 2:11 of the second half, Oregon was whistled for three fouls.
“I don’t get into foul counts,” said Bennett, who spent six seasons at Washington State, the final three as head coach, before coming to UVa in the spring of 2009.
“I know those guys. I was in the Pac-10, and those are fine guys, and they do a good job. You’re always trying to not get on the refs, but if you think there’s a point to be made, you try to make it and do it respectfully.”
Did he make such a point to the officials at halftime?
“You’d have to ask them,” Bennett said, flashing a smile.
In his first game in the Pacific Northwest since leaving Chelan, Wash., for UVa, Harris had 15 points and 5 rebounds. His first points didn’t come until the 8:05 mark of the opening half, but like his team, Harris got better as the game went on. The highlight for No. 12 was his four-point play with 13:13 left.
“At first it was tough,” Harris said. “It was tough to get baskets, but we just kept sticking with it. Coach was talking about how that’s the sign of a good team: When things aren’t going well originally, you just keep battling, keep battling, and eventually things are going to go your way.”
The double-double was the 28th of Scott’s college career, and it came “after a slow first half,” Bennett pointed out. In a game in which two other UVa big men, Assane Sene and Akil Mitchell, finished with four fouls apiece, the 6-8, 237-pound Scott managed to stay on the floor for 19 minutes in the second half.
“His experience showed,” Bennett said.
Virginia got 9 points apiece from two of its guards: Sammy Zeglinski, a fifth-year senior, and Malcolm Brogdon, an unflappable freshman who also pulled down 6 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench. Of special note, too, was the play of Evans, who has improved dramatically on offense since entering UVa in 2009 as a raw freshman out of Bethel High School in Hampton.
The 5-11 junior finished with 12 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 steal Sunday. His two free throws at the 17:49 mark put Virginia ahead for good, and twice in the final eight minutes Evans scored on acrobatic drives.
For the season, Evans is shooting 55 percent from the floor. This is a player, remember, who shot 36.9 percent as a freshman and 39 percent as a sophomore.
“He worked really hard on something that a lot of people don’t work on this summer: finishing,” Bennett said. “Certainly he worked on trying to get his shot a little more consistent, and his free throws, but we really challenged him with: ‘Get better at your floaters, your drives, your plays off the glass,’ and he worked a lot at that.”
Most players don’t spend a lot of time practicing layups, Bennett said, but Evans “went to work on that, and I think he’s got much better touch when he’s going to the rim this season.”
Last season, Evans said, he “wouldn’t have had the confidence to take” many of the shots he hit against Oregon. “But this summer I worked a lot on my finishing, just trying to finish and help my team out, take some of the pressure off some of my shooters.”
A season-high crowd of 8,750 showed up Sunday at the 12,369-seat arena, which is less than a year old and cost $227 million. The home fans tried their best to energize the Ducks in the final 10 minutes, but UVa wasn’t fazed.
“It was loud,” Evans said. “I didn’t think it would get that loud, because there weren’t a lot of people, but it definitely got loud. They had momentum, and then we just fought back, played our game and made ’em quiet.”
ON THE AIR: Bennett’s weekly radio show, the Farm Bureau Insurance Coach’s Corner, will air Monday at 9 p.m. Eastern. The show, hosted by UVa play-by-play announcer Dave Koehn, will be broadcast live from Seattle.