By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After taking Nov. 9 off, the UVa men’s basketball team embarked on a grueling stretch that included four games in eight days.
On Saturday, the ninth-ranked Cavaliers will enjoy their first break in nearly two weeks. Virginia doesn’t play again until Tuesday night, when Tennessee State (2-1) of the Ohio Valley Conference visits John Paul Jones Arena for a 7 o’clock game.
“I don’t know how much of a day off emotionally it’ll be for me, because my football team plays [Saturday night], and I can’t wait to watch us going against Miami,” junior swingman Justin Anderson said Friday night at JPJ. “But it’s going to be good to just get back, get off of our feet and not have to come to practice for a day.”
The Wahoos will have plenty to reflect on — more good than bad — as they relax Saturday. They’re 4-0 for the first time since 2007-08 after rallying past George Washington 59-42 on Friday night in their first test of the season.
In the Cavaliers’ first three games — routs of JMU, Norfolk State and South Carolina State — they trailed for a total of 18 seconds.
Against GW (2-1), which made the NCAA tournament last season, the `Hoos ran into a physical, skilled opponent, and they trailed by seven points late in the first half. But the Cavaliers trimmed their deficit to four by halftime and then overwhelmed the Colonials in the final 20 minutes.
UVa scored 14 of the first 16 points in the second half.
“That’s just a glimpse of what we can achieve every night,” senior big man Darion Atkins said. “If we just bring that every single day, every single night, I think we’re going to be a really good team this year. I think it’s a really big statement that we played that well in the second half against a really good team.”
GW made only 5 of 25 shots from the floor after intermission against UVa’s trademark Pack-Line defense. The `Hoos also blocked nine second-half shots, to the delight of an amped-up crowd of 13,706 that included a packed student section.
“We were fortunate to be down four [at halftime],” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “They scored in the paint. They got what they wanted. We were real reactive defensively, and our offense didn’t match what we needed to. It was very impatient. So that was troublesome.”
In its first three games, Virginia got virtually any shot it wanted. Against GW, UVa was out of sync offensively early and made only 9 of 27 field-goal attempts before the break. The Cavaliers also missed 4 of 7 free throws in the first half.
They heated up in the second half, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 77.8 percent from the line, “but you can’t expect to start a game with that kind of mindset offensively and be effective, or you’re going to be in trouble, and we were,” Bennett said.
“Again, [there were] some nice plays by guys, but that’s not the basketball we’re trying to attain, and we have to learn from that, or that’ll be a problem.”
GW led for the final 16:22 of the opening half. Still, Anderson said, the `Hoos didn’t panic.
“We always knew we were going to be fine, because we trust our defense and we trust everything that Coach prepares us for,” Anderson said. “So there was never a time where we looked at the scoreboard like, `Uh oh.’ If anything, we knew what we had to do. We knew what we did not do, and that was not run our offense to make the extra pass or not communicate enough on defense.”
Anderson led all scorers with 18 points and also pulled down a season-high eight rebounds. Redshirt junior guard Malcolm Brogdon added 15 points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots, though he wasn’t at his sharpest. Brogdon missed 8 of 13 shots from the floor as well as two free throws.
Still, on a night when the `Hoos, like Brogdon, sputtered at times on offense, they still won going away.
“I think it speaks to how good we can be, but I also think it speaks to how [off] we can be, also,” Brogdon said. “I think we have to come out prepared, especially when the competition’s stepping up like it did tonight. That was a very good team we played and they gave us all they had. Luckily we were able to execute coming out in the second half, but we gotta come out better in the first half.”
One of the Cavaliers’ first first-half highlights was a reverse dunk from Anderson off a lob pass from Brogdon.
“I’ve been begging Malcolm all year to throw me a lob, and he finally got me one,” Anderson said. “It was pretty sweet. It kind of took me back to my freshman year against Clemson, when Jontel [Evans] threw the same type of pass and I had to dunk it backwards.”
The 6-6 Anderson, whose teammates at Montrose Christian School included Kevin Larsen, now GW’s starting center, topped himself in the second half with another stunning display of athleticism.
On a missed 3-pointer by junior forward Evan Nolte from the left corner, the left-handed Anderson leaped, reached up with his right hand and then slammed the ball down through the basket to make it 40-34. The arena shook as fans applauded Anderson’s feat.
“I think that was my favorite, because I haven’t gotten one of those since high school,” Anderson said. “In college, guys are normally boxing out, and you never get things like that as a guard. But that was one was pretty clean.”
Anderson, who’s averaging a team-high 16 points per game, “plays hard and with confidence,” GW coach Mike Lonergan said. “He has that energy. He is one of those guys you love to coach and hate to play against.”
Junior guard Kethan Savage led the Colonials with 13 points, and freshman Yuta Watanabe, a 6-8 forward from Japan with impressive potential, added 10 off the bench. But the 6-10, 260-pound Larsen finished with twice as many turnovers (four) as points (two) and struggled against the Cavaliers’ swarming low-post traps.
“He’s a good player, and he’s mature,” Bennett said of Larsen, who came in averaging 11 points and nine rebounds. “Perhaps he had an off game, but I hope it was somewhat because our defense disrupted him … We tried to make it hard for him to get catches, and then when he did get a catch, we tried to come after him.”
Led by the 6-8 Atkins, who tied his career high with 11 boards, Virginia outrebounded GW 41-28. Atkins also contributed eight points and a team-high three blocks.
“He really gets people thinking about their shots when they drive to the basket, because they know he can block shots,” said another UVa big man, redshirt junior Anthony Gill. “It’s just another added bonus for us to have, because with our Pack-Line, we don’t like for people to get in the lane. But if they do, we know Darion’s there to [clean it up].”
Bennett wants his players to ask themselves how they can best help the team. For Atkins, that means focusing on defense and rebounding, and then being opportunistic on offense.
“When he’s locked into that, that gives us a real good lift, and I thought he made some big plays tonight at crucial times,” Bennett said.
Junior center Mike Tobey chipped in six points and five rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench. Gill finished with eight points, four rebounds and two blocked shots, but he also had a team-high three turnovers.
“Today wasn’t a great day for me,” Gill said, “and my teammates, they were there for me. They picked me up, and they were right there having my back. Whenever I would put my head down, they were right there for me. And that’s the kind of guys we have here, that are just going to pick each other up when we see somebody’s down.”