By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey likened it to “a nuclear explosion,” as apt a description as any for the 25-0 run that blew open a close ACC men’s basketball game Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena.
It started with a 3-pointer by senior guard Joe Harris, whose shot put Virginia up 46-43 with 11:04 left. It ended with another trey, this one by sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, whose shot put the Cavaliers up 68-43 with 3:00 remaining.
In between the Wahoos made one big play after another on an afternoon when they stretched their winning streak to 11 games with a 70-49 demolition of the Fighting Irish.
The most memorable was the latest defensive gem by a Cavalier who’s becoming known for them: Justin Anderson. Twelve days earlier, a dramatic blocked shot by the 6-6 sophomore had sparked Virginia in its comeback win over Maryland at JPJ. This time, Anderson soared to block a dunk attempt by 6-10 Zach Auguste.
“I feel like that was the play that turned the game around for us, that really got us ignited,” Brogdon said. “That was a wide-open dunk for that guy. We’d broken down. They’d made an extra pass that was a good pass. Justin came out of nowhere and pinned it against the glass.”
Virginia forward Anthony Gill collected the rebound and started a fast break. It ended with a Brogdon pass to Gill for a slam that pushed UVa’s lead to 50-43 and raised decibel levels inside JPJ to what may well have been an all-time high.
“The crowd was terrific,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “You could feel the electricity, and that’s what you come back home for. You need that, because this is that time of year when you gotta dig a little deeper.”
Among those in the crowd of 14,114 was the man for whom the arena is named, John Paul Jones. If he marveled at the scene around him, Jones wasn’t the only one.
This, Brey said, “may be the loudest place we’ve played. We played at Iowa, played at the Carrier Dome. It’s a fabulous home-court atmosphere.”
Fans at JPJ have had plenty to cheer this season. The Cavaliers (23-5, 14-1) are ranked No. 13 in the USA Today coaches poll and No. 14 by The Associated Press, and they seem to reach another milestone with every game.
With the victory over Notre Dame (14-14, 6-10), Virginia set a school record for ACC wins in a season. The `Hoos are 18 games over .500 for the first time since 1982-83, and they’ve won 16 straight ACC home games. They’ve also matched their victory total from a season ago.
UVa shot a season-high 63.6-percent from the floor and limited Notre Dame to 38.9-percent accuracy.
“More than any team in the league they really know who they are on both ends of the floor,” Brey said. “I just think they’re a really confident group. They’ve had games like this where they look like they’re on the ropes and all of a sudden they have an explosion, and today was a nuclear explosion.”
Asked what it felt like to be part of such a run, Virginia big man Akil Mitchell said, “I don’t even remember it, honestly. At some point you’re just playing, and I feel like I looked up when I came off the floor and we were up 20. At some point you kind of zone out and you’re just playing ball and having fun.”
“That might have something to do with the crowd being so loud,” he said. “I might have a concussion. It was honestly just a lot of fun.”
Brogdon said: “Honestly, you’re not keeping score. You’re not even thinking that we’ve scored 10 points and not let them score, a 10-0 run. We’re not even thinking that. We’re thinking, `We’re scoring, we’re getting stops. Let’s keep scoring and getting stops.’ That’s what’s going through your head: `Score, get a stop. Score, get out in transition.’ That’s when everything’s clicking, when you’re not even thinking about it that much.”
This marked the fifth straight game UVa trailed in the second half before rallying to win. In Atlanta on Feb. 8, the Cavaliers closed the game on a 22-1 run to defeat Georgia Tech 64-45.
“When you’ve done it before, you know you can do it again,” Brogdon said of Virginia’s second-half comebacks.
Bennett remains focused on the next game, the next challenge. Still, his team’s accomplishments are not lost on him.
“It’s different guys at different times,” Bennett said, and he relishes “how they’re doing it, how they’re playing. It’s a humble approach that they’re taking to it, the guys — how they’re sharing the ball, how they’re not worried about numbers — and to me that’s a beautiful thing. That’s why you coach: to have a group come together like this and play defensively, offensively, in stretches like this.
“I wouldn’t say we’re the toughest team, but we’re playing tough. I wouldn’t say we’re the most selfless team, but we’re playing selfless. There’s something there that when you’re [part of] it, you’re thankful for it.”
Game No. 4 in this winning streak was in South Bend, Ind., where Virginia hammered Notre Dame 68-53. In the rematch, the Cavaliers led by 12 at the 10:45 mark of the first half, but Notre Dame would be not dispatched so easily. The Irish fought back, helped by their hosts’ lapses at both ends, and the game was tied 30-30 at halftime.
Bennett wasn’t happy in the locker room, and for good reason. But the Cavaliers remained confident.
“There’s no panic,” said Mitchell, a 6-8 senior. “Just be patient with our stuff. We knew that we could get the ball inside. We knew that we had a mismatch inside, and we knew that if we kept defending we’d be just fine.”
Mitchell had his way with Notre Dame in the paint, making all seven of his field-goal attempts, and so did Gill, who was 5 for 6 from the floor. Each finished with 15 points. Brogdon added 13 points and led the Cavaliers in rebounds (seven) and assists (six).
Harris contributed eight points, and 6-8 junior Darion Atkins supplied stellar defense in nine minutes off the bench. Freshman point guard London Perrantes had three assists and, once again, no turnovers. He also was 2 for 2 from the floor.
“That’s what’s unique about this team, the balance,” Bennett said. “It can be anybody on any given night.”
Anderson, UVa’s sixth man, made all three of his shots from the floor and scored seven points. Statistics, however, don’t reflect Anderson’s impact on the game or his value to his team.
“He wants to do the little things,” Gill said. “He wants to do anything that can help us win. So if that means diving on the floor, if that means blocking the shot at the rim, he’s doing to do it for us. So he’s really an energy guy coming off the bench, and he really helps us out a lot, because he gets us started.”
On the game’s decisive play, Gill lost his man, Auguste. Not to worry. Anderson was there for his teammate.
“That happens,” Anderson said. “It’s the Pack Line defense. You help each other, and that’s what we do.”
To be able to deliver game-changing plays on defense is gratifying for him, Anderson said, “because that’s what this program is all about. It was built with defense. We have the defensive foundation, and when you can get a great play like that in transition and it leads to a big basket … it’s a huge lift.”
Anderson left the game to a warm ovation with 1:15 left. On Anderson’s way to the bench, Bennett stopped him for a few moments.
“I don’t want to tell you exactly what I said, but I really think he’s doing the things that are helping us win,” Bennett said. “He’s doing some special things, and I just let him know. I kind of affirmed to him that I liked what I saw … I think he’s given us a great lift these last two, three games, and I’m proud of him in that regard, and hopefully there’s much more.”
Only once has Virginia won the ACC’s regular-season title outright, in 1980-81. As March approaches, the Cavaliers lead the ACC, a game and a half ahead of Syracuse (12-2).
“Of course that’s a dream, a goal, and we’ll keep fighting for it,” Bennett said. “I’m so thankful to be in this spot, because it has been a while … When that brass ring’s coming around, you grab it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Mitchell said: “It’s a special team, and I’ve said that over and over all season. It’s a special team, and I have a ton of faith in my guys. But at the same time it doesn’t mean anything yet. Maybe I’ll look back when the season’s over, and I’ll realize that I’m part of something special. But right here I’m living for the here and now, and we still have goals that we need to meet.”
UP NEXT: Virginia plays twice more at JPJ before closing the regular season March 9 against Maryland in College Park. The `Hoos host Miami (14-13, 5-9) at 7 p.m. Wednesday and No. 1 Syracuse (25-2, 12-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The Syracuse game has been sold out for months, but tickets remain for the Hurricanes’ visit to JPJ.
For ticket information, visit VirginiaSports.com/tickets or call (800) 542-8821.