By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa came ready to battle. Wake Forest provided little resistance. The result Wednesday night was a shockingly one-sided basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena.
In the Cavaliers’ ACC home opener, they never trailed. Virginia scored the first 11 points, led by 32 with 7:20 remaining and walked off with a 74-51 win.
“We had gone [to Wake] last year and lost to them,” redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said, “and we had a chip on our shoulders tonight. We weren’t content with the Florida State win. We were still trying to remain hungry, and we came out and competed tonight.”
Their loss last year to the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem, N.C., helped keep the Wahoos out of the NCAA tournament. Point guard London Perrantes was still in high school then, but his Virginia teammates gave him a history lesson this week.
“They were definitely hyped for this game, because of that [loss],” Perrantes said. “I just wanted to go out and play with the same energy we played with at Florida State, and I feel like we did that.”
The victory was the second straight for UVa (11-4, 2-0), which moved into a tie with No. 2 Syracuse and Pittsburgh for the ACC lead. Virginia stunned Florida State 62-50 in Tallahassee on Saturday night.
In that game, the Cavaliers’ All-ACC guard, Joe Harris, sat out the final 37:37 with a concussion. The 6-6 senior returned to practice Tuesday afternoon and started against Wake. He played 27 minutes, hit 4 of 8 shots, including 3 for 6 from beyond the arc, and finished with 11 points.
“Looked like he didn’t miss a beat out there,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “He had a nice pace about him and didn’t seem to get too tired.
“It was good to see him out there. We played well at Florida State without him, but he’s so important. I think had he played in that game, we just would have been that much better. So having him tonight was big for us.”
Harris’ NBA-length 3-pointer as time expired sent the `Hoos into intermission with a 41-24 lead.
“It was good to get that momentum going into half, but it was just a lucky play,” he said. “But I knew if I got the ball and I was somewhat in range, I was pretty confident it was going to go in.”
Four players scored in double figures for Virginia: Brogdon (14 points), Harris, sophomore swingman Justin Anderson (11) and redshirt sophomore forward Anthony Gill (10). Senior big man Akil Mitchell led the Cavaliers with seven rebounds, and Perrantes, who played through a hip injury, contributed a game-high five assists and a career-best three steals.
“I thought we came out the right way,” Bennett said. “It’s pretty simple. I told the guys: You’ve got the formula for how you gotta play. Does it guarantee you’re going to be successful every time? No. But we guarded the right way.
“They had some careless turnovers right away, Wake Forest did, which helped us. But we were in the right spots and made them shoot the contested shots. And then we ran our offense pretty hard, got some easy looks, made some 3s, but there was purpose with our offense with a little bit of discipline. That was good to see.”
The 6-5 Brogdon, who sat out last season while recovering from foot surgery, went 6 for 8 from the floor and added six rebounds, two assists and two steals in his 26 minutes. He didn’t turn the ball over.
“I’m just very thankful that he’s out there and he’s healthy and he’s practicing hard,” Bennett said, “and we’ll just keep going in that direction with him.”
The outcome was painfully familiar for Wake, which has lost 15 consecutive ACC road games. In four seasons under head coach Jeff Bzdelik, the Demon Deacons are 1-25 in conference road games.
“Give Virginia a lot of credit,” Bzdelik said. “They started the game in a way that just took our heart right out of us.”
Three nights earlier, on its home court, Wake had knocked off North Carolina 73-67. Against UVa’s stifling defense, nothing came easily for the Deacons. Virginia held All-ACC candidates Devin Thomas and Travis McKie to a combined four points, seven rebounds and six turnovers. (Thomas played only 19 minutes before leaving with an injury.)
The Deacons were “coming off a big win,” Bennett noted. “They’ve got a lot of sophomores, like us. Sometimes you don’t know how they’ll respond on the road. So I think they’re a better ball club than they showed, but I was pleased with the way our guys shared the ball and took care of it.”
He’s pleased, too, with his team’s recent turnaround. The teams to which UVa lost in non-conference play — VCU (12-3), No. 4 Wisconsin (16-0), Green Bay (12-3) and Tennessee (10-4) — could all end up in the NCAA tournament. Still, one of those defeats shook Virginia in a way the others didn’t.
On Dec. 30, at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee embarrassed UVa 87-52.
“We couldn’t hide from that,” Bennett said. “You couldn’t. All those other losses you could have said, `Well, it was close. It was just this, it was just that.’ But when that thing’s staring you in the face like it was — against a good team, don’t get me wrong — that makes you say, `All right, who are we going to become? Are we going to be serious about this? Are we going to do what’s got us here, to a point where we’re competitive?’
“I think that was a turning point for us, and we tried to give the guys a little more structure [with] certain things offensively and refocused a little bit defensively.”
The Cavaliers’ improvement has been dramatic, especially at the defensive end. The Seminoles shot only 30.8 percent from the floor against Virginia; the Deacons, 35.4 percent.
“Our defense fuels our offense,” Gill said. “We kind of got away from that at the beginning of the year, and we’re trying to get back to Virginia Basketball.”
Bennett said: “Great defense, good defense, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win, but without it we don’t have much a chance. So it’s coming to the realization that that’s our bedrock to start with. Trying to take care of the ball’s another one, and then trying to, as we said, be a little more patient [on offense] and wear people down there.”
The Cavaliers host Florida State (9-4, 0-1) at JPJ on Jan. 18. First, however, come two road games. Virginia plays at NC State (11-4, 1-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday and at No. 13 Duke (12-3, 1-1) at 7 p.m. Monday. Both games will be nationally televised: the first on ESPN2 and the second on ESPN.
“We’ll be challenged on the road,” Bennett said, but his players feel much better about themselves than they did a week ago.
“I think we’re starting to realize what we need to do in order for us to win,” Harris said. “We’ve kind of found our identity. We got away a little bit from what Virginia Basketball has been about the last couple of years, and maybe we thought we had more talent than we actually have. We don’t match up talent for talent with all the teams we’re going to be playing going forward, and I think we’ve come to realize that the way we’re going to win is defensively and being sound on the offensive end and trying to out-tough and outwork teams.”