By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Seventy miles separate the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University. Three points separated their nationally ranked men’s basketball teams Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena in a fiercely contested game that proved to be every bit as memorable as expected.
“Heck of a game,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “It was an intense game, intense setting … The excitement leading up to it certainly was there, and I don’t think it disappointed in terms of the quality of the game and the energy in the building.”
VCU coach Shaka Smart said the “crowd was great, both theirs and ours. It was a very, very good college basketball game for this early in the season.”
When it ended, the No. 14 Rams were the ones celebrating. A contested 3-pointer by Treveon Graham from about 25 feet put VCU ahead 59-56 with 1.4 seconds left, and UVa couldn’t answer. The Cavaliers and their fans were left to lament a late collapse marked by missed free throws and turnovers.
“We played that game, really, at our pace,” sophomore point guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “We just made key mistakes that really hurt us at the end of the day.”
No. 25 Virginia led 51-44 with 6:45 left and 55-49 four minutes later. From there, however, the Wahoos (1-1) self-destructed on offense, and the Rams were able to crack Bennett’s Pack Line defense. By the time Brogdon drew a foul on an off-balance drive with 9.7 seconds left, UVa trailed 56-55.
Brogdon missed his first free throw. He made the second, however, and the home fans in the amped-up crowd of 13,881 drowned out their VCU counterparts, a spirited group high up in the arena. But Graham, who led the Rams’ comeback, struck again, burying a deep shot as UVa guard London Perrantes leaped at him.
“Pretty well-defended, and it was an NBA 3,” Bennett said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Perrantes said: “He’s a good player, and big-time players make big plays in big-time games.”
Graham, a 6-6, 220-pound junior, finished with a game-high 22 points. Ten came in the final 6:40.
“He can get to the rim, he can offensive rebound, and then he can put the dagger in you like he did with his 3-ball,” Bennett said.
UVa outrebounded the Rams 41-28 and limited their fast-break opportunities. The Cavaliers’ man-to-man defense tightened up as the game went on, often forcing the Rams to use most of the shot clock.
“This game is an example of why Virginia is so good on the defensive end,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “They take you out of what you are trying to do.”
The Rams’ defense won its share of battles, too. Against VCU’s vaunted full-court pressure, UVa turned the ball over 19 times.
“We prepared hard and trained hard to try to be ready for it,” Bennett said, “and at times it showed and at times it didn’t.”
More damaging, perhaps, were the Cavaliers’ struggles from the free-throw line, where they were 19 for 33. They missed 8 of 14 attempts in the second half.
“That certainly stings,” Bennett said.
On a night when UVa played without one of its best 3-point shooters, sophomore forward Evan Nolte (concussion), senior guard Joe Harris scored a team-high 18 points. Harris, an All-ACC pick last season, made 7 of 12 shots from the floor. His teammates were a combined 11 for 36.
Harris was the only player to hit a 3-pointer for the `Hoos, who finished 1 for 8 from beyond the arc. But he missed two free throws with 3:58 left and, at the 2:29 mark, was called for a charge with UVa leading 55-51.
Still, for its all breakdowns, Virginia very easily could have won the first game between these programs since 1998.
“We just didn’t play as sound as we should have at the very end,” Harris said.
The Rams’ frenetic defense “wears you down, but I think when we took care of the ball we wore them down,” Brogdon said. “When we made them play 30 to 35 seconds of defense in the halfcourt, we wore them down, but it was our turnovers and our free throws that came back to get us.”
Bennett said: “It’s a game for the mentally strong. I’ve heard Coach [Bob] Knight say it so many times: It’s a neck-up game. You gotta have neck-up players. When they’re fatigued, they play with their mind … That’s what separates solid teams from really good teams.”
The officials called 48 fouls, and the frequent stoppages hurt the flow of the game. Virginia center Mike Tobey went to bench with his third foul early in the second half. The 6-11 sophomore had contributed five points and a career-best nine rebounds in the first half, but Bennett opted to use 6-8 junior Darion Atkins (eight points, eight rebounds, two blocked shots) in Tobey’s place late in the game.
“I thought Darion was so active and so quick, and we needed stops,” Bennett said. “He gave us a great lift [as a shot-blocker] … Perhaps I could have played Mike, but I thought we needed stops with Akil and D.A. But they’ll all have their chances, that’s for sure.”
The Cavaliers lost the game, but they didn’t lose perspective. “It’s early in the season, and we know that we have a good team,” Mitchell said. “We just have to take those [mistakes] and learn from them and bounce back.”
Brogdon said: “It’s definitely going to help us. I think this loss is going to end up being a blessing. We won’t play another team that plays faster or more uptempo than them, so we’ll be ready, really, for any type of pace that a team tries to pace on us.”
Bennett and Shaka have coached together with USA Basketball, most recently on the team that in July won the gold medal at FIBA’s under-19 world championships in the Czech Republic. Their admiration for each other was evident as the game approached, and the outcome didn’t change that.
“I’ll say this out of respect for Shaka: It stings to lose, but when you lose to someone that you respect, and they’re a friend of yours, it’s a little easier, because they do things the right way,” Bennett said.
“Our program does things the right way, and I can stomach it, because I think it’s going to be good for our program certainly, if we learn from it, and we know we’ve got some issues we’ve got to improve. But hats off to a heck of a program and a friend who can coach the heck out of the game. We’ll grow from it and we’ll move on.”
UP NEXT: In Charlotte, N.C., where Bennett played for the NBA’s Hornets and where Mitchell and sophomore forward Anthony Gill grew up, UVa will meet Davidson (0-2) at noon Saturday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
That’s the home of the NBA’s Bobcats, who play the Miami Heat there at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re going to go back, watch the film, learn from everything and start getting ready for Davidson,” Harris said, “because I know everyone to a man in the locker room can’t wait to get back on the court and play against somebody else on Saturday.”
Virginia’s next home game is Tuesday night against Navy at JPJ. Tipoff is at 7 o’clock.