By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The drama and tension typically associated with games between bitter rivals were conspicuously absent Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena. For the final 25 minutes and 25 seconds, the UVa men’s basketball team never led Virginia Tech by fewer than 10 points.
Tougher tests await Virginia in conference play, but this game was a mismatch. With a 65-45 rout of the Hokies, the Cavaliers stretched their winning streak in the series to four games and remained tied with Pittsburgh for second in the ACC behind Syracuse.
The Wahoos’ margin of victory was their largest over the Hokies since an 86-61 romp on Jan. 23, 1991.
“We kind of just jumped on them,” UVa senior guard Joe Harris said, “and then it just seemed we kind of kept it there the entire game.”
Other than a late dunk by Virginia guard Teven Jones and the technical fouls called on Jones and Tech’s Jarell Eddie in the second half, Harris noted, there weren’t “a whole lot of exciting plays happening.”
The near-capacity crowd savored Virginia’s 13th straight ACC home victory anyway. The Cavaliers (15-5, 6-1) are off to their best start in conference play since 1982-83, when Ralph Sampson ruled the college game.
“It’s kind of cool that the fans embrace the way that we play and they love the fact that we grind it out and that we’re a tough team,” Harris said. “They really get into it when there’s a shot-clock violation or when we’re really heating teams up and playing good defense.”
The `Hoos played stellar defense Saturday, holding the Hokies (8-11, 1-6) to 33.3-percent accuracy from the floor. Only one player scored in double figures for Tech — freshman point guard Devin Wilson — and 11 of his 12 points came in the final 8:03, after Virginia had built a commanding lead. The Cavaliers led 34-17 after an opening half that included a scoreless stretch of more than eight minutes for the Hokies.
“That was a very good, very, very good Virginia basketball team today,” Tech coach James Johnson said. “I thought going into the game that they were playing some of the best basketball in the country. They continued that tonight.”
Each of the Cavaliers’ ACC wins has been by at least 12 points. Their lone conference loss was by four to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“Our guys have played pretty solid basketball in those victories,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “It hasn’t been perfect, but that’s what we’re going toward. My plea to them is, `Don’t give it back. You’ve worked hard to get to this, and just because you’ve won a few, it shouldn’t change how you approach it and how you play.’ And that’s the message that I want them to keep understanding. We have to play this way.”
Bennett often tells his players he wants them to “keep finding the crumbs.” The meaning of that phrase?
“Just stay hungry,” redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon said. “We’re trying to find the crumbs. We’re trying to find the little things that motivate us and keep us hungry and keep us with that edge.”
Brogdon, a 6-5 guard, led all scorers Saturday with a career-best 18 points. His four 3-pointers also were a career high, and he added six rebounds, three assists, one steal and only one turnover. That Tech offered so little resistance on defense made Brogdon’s job easier.
“He took pretty much wide-open shots,” Bennett said, and that was true for most, if not all, of the Cavaliers.
“We were getting so many open shots,” Brogdon said. “There were ones that we had to turn down. I know I had to turn down a couple, even though they were early and they were easy and open. But it was too early in the offense. We had to get more of a rhythm going.”
Harris scored 12 points, raising his career total to 1,487 and moving into 17th place on UVa’s all-time list.
Virginia made 5 of its first 6 shots from the floor, and the Hokies’ defense was not much stingier thereafter.
“I in particular got some open looks early on,” Harris said, “and then it just seemed like, whether they were in zone or man, if we were able to get some good ball reversal, move them a little bit, hit them with some screens, they didn’t really last throughout the entire possession.”
The Cavaliers were ranked No. 24 in the preseason Associated Press poll, but by the time 2014 arrived they had lost four times: to VCU, Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee. Virginia is showing now why it was picked to finish fourth in the ACC, but Bennett does not want his team to grow complacent.
Before the game Saturday, Bennett quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson to his players, telling them that “the hero is not fed on sweets.”
The Cavaliers, Bennett said, have “been on the pedestal, and they’ve seen the other side. They’ve gotten knocked down. Everybody [said] how good they were going to be to start the year, all the projections, and we weren’t tough enough, sound enough, playing the kind of ball that gives us a chance.”
Asked about his team’s 6-1 start in ACC play, Bennett said it “means a lot to us, but that’s a little more than a third of our conference season. So just keep plugging … I just want our guys to pursue quality. I know I say that a lot, but it’s so important.”
His message has sunk in, especially with seniors Akil Mitchell and Harris.
“I guess it’s kind of cool,” Harris said of UVa’s conference record, “but I don’t think it should mean a whole lot to us.”
Mitchell said he’s not worried that the `Hoos will grow overconfident.
“I won’t let us,” Mitchell said. “I refuse. I’ve been here before. My last four years, it seems like we’ve been here at least once every year. If I have to, I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure this team doesn’t lose that edge.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: After three straight home games — all of which they won — the `Hoos will play their next two away from JPJ.
First comes a Tuesday night visit to Notre Dame (11-9, 2-5) and then a Super Sunday date with No. 19 Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-1).
The Fighting Irish lost Saturday at Wake Forest. Pitt won at Maryland.
“Gonna be very tough,” Brogdon said. “We know they’re both very good teams, very physical, coming from the Big East. But I think we’re tough and I think we’re physical, so I think it’ll be a good game as long as we go in there and play Virginia basketball and not worry too much about what they’re going to do, but what we’re going to do.”
UVa is 5-1 against Notre Dame, but the teams haven’t met since April 1, 1992.
Before the Virginia Tech game, Bennett said afterward, he told his players this: “You got a really good opportunity in front of you. Let’s try to seize it, every time you step out on the floor, because you’ve worked hard to get to this spot. Again, you know how you need to play. It doesn’t guarantee you’re gong to win every game, but you know what you need to do. Let’s make the most of these opportunities.'”
On Tuesday night, Virginia will play at Notre Dame for only the second time. The first was on Jan. 26, 1991, when Bryant Stith delivered one of the most memorable performances in UVa history. Stith scored the 18th-ranked Cavaliers’ final 19 points in a 68-67 comeback victory.