By Jeff White (email@example.com)
RALEIGH, N.C. — In the final minutes, UVa’s starters sat on the visitors’ bench at PNC Arena, trading laughs and smiles and watching as red-clad fans all around them headed to the exits Saturday night.
Die-hards in the student sections stayed till the end, but the rest of the stands had nearly emptied out by the time the final horn punctuated Virginia’s stunning 76-45 rout of NC State.
“It’s kind of crazy,” UVa guard Joe Harris said. “You don’t really see that a whole lot, especially when you get into league play. Especially when you go on the road, every game is tough. And for us to come in here and play the way that we did, and then just to see the fans filing out at the end, it’s kind of a cool moment, I guess, just to know that you came in, you played well, you prepared well and you were able to come in and get a win.”
This was no ordinary victory. Only once in five seasons under head coach Tony Bennett have the Cavaliers won an ACC road game by a larger margin. That was a 32-point win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Jan. 19, 2012.
The Wahoos (12-4, 3-0), who are tied with Syracuse and Pittsburgh for the ACC lead, never trailed against the Wolfpack (11-5, 1-2). Eleven minutes in, it was 30-9. The `Hoos, who went into halftime up 48-25, made 16 of their first 22 shots from the floor.
“Virginia played terrific basketball,” State coach Mark Gottfried said. “In the first half, I’m not sure if they could play any better and I’m not sure if we could play any worse. It was a perfect storm.”
Bennett said: “That’s what happened to us against Tennessee.”
The victory was UVa’s third straight since a humiliating loss to the Volunteers, who romped 87-52 in Knoxville in a nationally televised game Dec. 30. In the new year, the Cavaliers have showed why they were projected to finish fourth in the ACC, winning 62-50 at Florida State, whipping Wake Forest 74-51 in Charlottesville and, now, thrashing NC State.
Virginia is 3-0 in ACC play for the first time since 2009-10. Next up for UVa is a Monday night date with No. 13 Duke (12-4, 1-2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham. ESPN will televise the 7 o’clock game.
“Every team evolves,” Bennett said. “You find out strengths, you find out what you have to do. We learned so much in that Tennessee loss.
“This is the time of year where teams either improve or you kind of stay the same and get left behind, and for the last three games we have improved.”
There are many reasons for that improvement, among them the leadership shown by seniors Akil Mitchell and Harris, who were All-ACC performers last season, since the Tennessee game.
“It’s their team, it’s their time, and it’s time for them to lead,” Bennett said. “Joe and Akil have set a nice mindset. I’ve seen them take more ownership in this stretch, and I think the others are following, and obviously we’ve had some good results.”
Harris said that, after the debacle in Knoxville, he and Mitchell met and talked about how “this is not the way we want to go out or finish our careers at UVa. If anything, we wanted to get back to how Virginia basketball established itself and had played in the previous years and had success, and that’s being sound on both ends, being physically and mentally tough. We didn’t really have our identity, I guess, in our game we lost against Tennessee.”
The Cavaliers had to “go back to the drawing board and figure that out, what it takes for us to be successful,” Harris said, “and I think Akil and I did a good job of just trying to reiterate or explain to guys what made us successful in the past and what we needed to do going forward.”
Mitchell said the “butt-whupping we took [at Tennessee] really opened our eyes, really made us focused. It made us change some things, and it made us kind of put our foot down and say, `Look, if we’re going to be a good team, these are the things we need to do,’ and we’ve done them so far.”
The seniors led by example Saturday. The 6-8 Mitchell pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds and went 4 for 5 from the floor. Harris finished with 16 points, three steals and two assists in 20 minutes and helped the `Hoos all but silence NC State sophomore T.J. Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer.
Warren came in averaging 23.4 points and shooting 62.2 percent from the floor. He made only 1 of 9 shots from the floor and scored a season-low four points.
The 6-6 Harris didn’t learn until Friday that he would start the game on the 6-8 Warren.
“He accepted that challenge,” Bennett said.
Brogdon said he tried to be physical with Warren. “He’s not all finesse,” Brogdon said. “He tried to post me a couple times, I tried to front him in the post. With a guy like that you try to stay in front and contest all of his shots. You’re not really going to shut him down, but you can frustrate him, and I feel like that’s what we did tonight.”
The Wolfpack’s other players fared little better against UVa’s trademark Pack-Line defense. State shot only 28.9 percent from the floor.
Harris noted that the Cavaliers’ defense is “a collective unit against the ball. It’s not just one person in particular shutting somebody down. It’s a team defense and a defensive effort … I think collectively our team defense — just being in gaps, being sound, being in the right spots, having good ball pressure, being physical, just sticking to what we practice and the game plan and the scouting report that we had — is what forced them to take some take shots and led to some of their best players having off nights.”
Bennett was gracious after Virginia’s third straight victory over State in Raleigh.
“They were really cold,” he said. “They were off, and that helped. They couldn’t buy a bucket. They had one of those games and we had one of those games.”
At halftime, Bennett said, he challenged his players.”We just talked about really coming out with an edge. You can’t play the game comfortably, especially on the road. It doesn’t work.”
The Cavaliers weren’t as sharp after intermission, but they continued to play hard. Among the highlights was the hustle of Anderson, who with 14:20 left soared to rebound a missed 3-point attempt by Brogdon. Anderson’s momentum carried him toward the baseline, and as he was going out of bounds, he leaped, turned and bounced the ball off the legs of State center BeeJay Anya.
Virginia retained possession, and freshman point guard London Perrantes inbounded the ball to Brogdon, uncovered in the lane, for a layup that made it 56-29.
Brogdon finished with 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting. Anderson grabbed six rebounds in only 18 minutes. Perrantes totaled five assists and two steals and did not turn the ball over. Sophomore center Mike Tobey contributed 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
“I got a little bit of a flow and it felt good,” said Tobey, who went 6 for 11 from the floor and 4 for 4 from the line.
“He got some good looks,” Bennett said, “and he’s such an important part of it, and when we have that inside-outside attack, that changes things … I thought he and Akil were a nice combination tonight. It was good to see him get some touches and be locked in. Mike’s got a high ceiling, as we all know, and I just want him to keep maturing and having the intensity that he needs to show his abilities and help our team.”
Mitchell said he tries “to get Tobey going. Some games he kind of disappears, and you want that energy, you want that intensity out of him every game, but when he’s playing like that he’s so tough to stop. It’s my job, it’s the coaches’ job to get him going, but when he’s playing like that he’s an animal.”
Only Brogdon (29) and Mitchell (27) played more than 24 minutes against NC State, good news for a UVa team facing a quick turnaround and a major challenge.
Bennett said he expects to encounter “an ornery Duke team” on Monday night. The Blue Devils played Clemson on Saturday afternoon and, shockingly, lost 72-59 at Littlejohn Coliseum.
“Certainly you’ll play a team that’s going to be ready,” Bennett said. “I saw that they lost a tough one on the road, and they’ll come back ready, and they have such talent and such energy in that building.”
Brogdon said the Blue Devils are “going to come in hungry, and that’s just more motivation for us, because we’ve got to come in hungry, too, and that’s what we will do. We’ve got to go in there and try to play Virginia basketball.”