By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BATON ROUGE, La. — Born and raised in this town, Laurel Bennett graduated from Louisiana State University and still pulls for her alma mater, especially its top-ranked football team.
There’s no question, though, where her loyalty will lie Monday night at LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Laurel will be wearing blue and orange, not purple and gold. So will her parents, also LSU graduates.
“Absolutely. We’ve got that squared away,” Laurel’s spouse, Tony, said with a smile at a downtown hotel not far from the Presbyterian church in which the Bennetts were married in August 1995.
Tony Bennett, of course, is in his third season as head coach at Virginia, which moved up two spots, to No. 21, in The Associated Press poll released Monday afternoon.
At 7 p.m. Eastern, UVa (12-1) meets LSU (10-3) in a non-conference game that matches two of the nation’s stingier teams. The Cavaliers are giving up an average of 50.3 points per game. The Tigers are allowing 60.4.
“I’d say first one to 65 [will win],” LSU point guard Anthony Hickey told the Baton Rouge newspaper. “Whoever has the most stops.”
This is the final non-conference game of the regular season for UVa, which opens its ACC schedule Saturday night against Miami at John Paul Jones Arena. The Wahoos, who defeated LSU in Charlottesville last season, are coming off a lackluster victory over winless Towson, which stayed close for most of the game before finally succumbing 57-50 at JPJ.
“The reality of it was, we weren’t real sharp offensively, and defensively we were just OK,” Bennett said. “And when we aren’t on top of our game in terms of moving hard and guys really having a focus, or attentiveness to detail, we become very mediocre. And we know that.”
Mike Scott played only 26 minutes against Towson because of foul trouble and finished with 7 points and 2 rebounds, both season lows for the 6-8 senior forward. Scott, whom LSU coach Trent Johnson called “a special player,” leads the ‘Hoos in scoring (16.3 ppg) and rebounding (9.0).
“Not only did I hurt myself not being in the game, it hurts the team,” Scott said Sunday night after UVa’s practice at the Maravich Center. “I see them out there struggling sometimes on offense and defense. So I just gotta be more mature and not get silly fouls.”
That will especially important against LSU, whose frontline includes 7-0, 260-pound center Justin Hamilton and 6-9, 262-pound power forward Johnny O’Bryant, a former McDonald’s All-American.
Bennett knows all about Hamilton. After announcing in 2010 that he would transfer from Iowa State, Hamilton visited UVa. He narrowed his choices to UVa and LSU before deciding to join Johnson’s program in Baton Rouge.
“He’s very solid,” Bennett said of Hamilton, who’s averaging 11.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots for a team that has won seven games in a row.
“You run across so many guys that you recruited hard, and so this is just part of coaching,” Bennett said. “Certainly when you watch their highlights, you think, ‘Well, that would have been nice,’ and you see reasons why you wanted a player.
“But as long as you feel like you did your best to get a guy in your program, and for whatever reason they chose what was best for them, you have to live with it. And because of that sometimes you get other guys.”
Virginia has won 10 games in a row. To run that streak to 11 on Monday night, the ‘Hoos will have to do something they’ve never done: defeat an SEC team on the road. The Cavaliers are 0-12 at SEC schools, and their next opponent is tall and athletic. LSU’s roster includes six players 6-8 or taller.
“If you don’t have a little orneriness or meanness tomorrow, it’s not gonna happen,” Bennett told his players Sunday night at practice.
LSU is not Maryland-Eastern Shore or Longwood or South Carolina State or Towson. Bennett’s players know that. Virginia played well in its victory over previously unbeaten Michigan at JPJ in late November. A similar effort will be necessary Monday night if Bennett’s team is to enter ACC play on a high note.
“It’s another team from a big conference, another big, athletic team like we’re going to see in conference play,” Scott said. “So this is basically kind of like starting our ACC play.”
Bennett said: “They’re really a good, physical defensive team. They’re big on the offensive glass — one of the better rebounding teams in the country – and you’re on the road.”
Moreover, the Cavaliers are nationally ranked. Marquette was unbeaten and ranked No. 10 when it visited the Maravich Center on Dec. 10. The Tigers knocked off the Golden Eagles 67-59.
“I know how it is,” Bennett said. “When we’re playing somebody who’s ranked, we get up for it. Out of the blocks, we gotta be ready to go and play at a high level [against LSU].”
This will be Bennett’s second game in the Maravich Center as a head coach. In 2007-08, his final season at Washington State, his team lost 64-52 to LSU. That was Johnson’s first season with the Tigers. He came to LSU from Stanford.
NOTE: The game will be carried on ESPN3 and on Charter Sports Southeast, which is not widely available in Virginia.