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Dec. 19, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — From the start of the Tony Bennett era at the University of Virginia, the trademark of his basketball program has been an unwavering commitment to defense, and that’s not likely to change.

Opponents are shooting only 32.5 percent from the floor against the Cavaliers this season. Bennett’s latest team, however, is also distinguishing itself at the other end of the court.

In 2013-14, when the Wahoos won 30 games and swept the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, they shot 45.4 percent from the floor, including 36.9 percent from 3-point range, and averaged 66.2 points.

Through 10 games this season — Bennett’s sixth as UVa’s head coach — his team is shooting 48.8 percent from the floor, including 37.9 percent from beyond the arc, and averaging 68.8 points.

“We have so many offensive weapons,” junior forward Evan Nolte said. “It’s really hard to contain all of us, especially when we’re playing with confidence. When one or two guys are covered, and [opponents are] focused on them, then it gives other guys the opportunity to come up and shoot open shots.”

Those weapons were on display Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena, where sixth-ranked Virginia improved to 10-0 for the first time since 2000-01 with a workmanlike victory over Cleveland State.

Junior swingman Justin Anderson and redshirt junior guard Malcolm Brogdon scored 16 points apiece, redshirt junior big man Anthony Gill added 13 and Nolte contributed eight off the bench in the Cavaliers’ 70-54 win.

Against a rugged defensive team, the Wahoos shot 58.3 percent from the floor in the second half and 50 percent overall. They were credited with assists on 14 of their 22 field goals. London Perrantes didn’t score Thursday night, but the sophomore point guard finished with a game-high five assists.

“I thought we were good offensively tonight,” Bennett said. “Once we got going a little bit, we shared the ball — the assists-to-turnovers showed that — there was a good balance, and I liked what we did.”

Among the highlights: a second-half sequence in which senior big man Darion Atkins grabbed an offensive rebound and then passed to the cutting Brogdon for a two-handed slam — one of two dunks for a 6-5 guard not known for playing above the rim.

“I think today we moved the ball really well,” Nolte said.

That marked the fifth time this season the `Hoos have hit at least half of their field-goal attempts. They shot 58 percent against JMU, 51.7 against Tennessee State, 53.1 percent against Maryland and 68.3 percent against VCU.

In 2013-14, when Virginia advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, the only players on the team who averaged in double figures were Brogdon (12.7 ppg) and Joe Harris (12.0), now a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Harris “was our senior leader,” Anderson said. “We looked to him to hit big shots. We looked to him to touch the ball every single possession, and he did a great job doing that. But it’s just a totally different team. It’s not that we’re better with him or better without him. It’s just a totally different dynamic, and just like last year, before every game I tell the team, `Let’s make this group special.’ “

Bennett said: “We’re balanced. We can score inside. You lose a shooter like Joe … but guys are getting the right kind of shots. Justin’s shooting it well, feet set. I just think there’s balance and our guys know what they need to do.

“But offense can come and go, and that’s why we always just say, `Hang your hat on the defense and just be as sound as you can offensively.’ If you can get a quality shot, that’s the key, but don’t let anybody off the hook defensively.”

Anderson (15.8 ppg) leads UVa in scoring, followed by Gill (13.0) and Brogdon (12.9). Junior center Mike Tobey is next at 8.2 ppg.

“I think we have guys that are playing with a lot of confidence,” Brogdon said, “and I think Coach Bennett has created a culture where seniors encourage even the younger guys to shoot more, and therefore it enhances the potential of the whole team.”

Also, Brogdon pointed out, “as good as our defense is, it leads into our offense. So when we’re playing good defense, our offense is playing well.”

The Cavaliers suffered several uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns in the second half Thursday night but still limited Cleveland State (5-6) to 36.5-percent accuracy for the game.

“We were up 20, took our foot off the gas, and then they scored seven quick points on us,” Bennett said. “But for the most part I thought it was pretty solid.”

In their first game since their Dec. 6 win over VCU in Richmond, the Cavaliers sputtered early on offense. But they held the Vikings scoreless for a 10-minute stretch of the first half and went into the break up 31-18.

When play resumed, the 6-6 Anderson took over. He scored 14 points in the first 8:17 of the second half, punishing the Vikings in a variety of ways. Most damaging to Cleveland State was Anderson’s four-point play with 17:31 remaining.

Fouled while hitting a 3-pointer from the top of the key, Anderson then added the free throw to stretch Virginia’s lead to 39-24.

“Our defense did a great job holding them to a low score early, and then I think shots started to fall,” Anderson said.

After a first half in which he scored only two points, Anderson recalled, he told himself in the locker room that he needed to be more aggressive on offense.

“And then quickly I changed that around in my mind and I said, `You know what? That’s exactly what you should not do. You should let the game just continue to come to you, try to just stay within our team and stay within our offense and just continue to make the extra pass,’ ” Anderson told reporters. “I think our team did a great job finding each other and making the extra pass, getting each other open, and I think a little bit started to open up for me.”

For the 6-8 Nolte, the eight points were his most this season, and they all came in the second half. He sank 3 of 4 shots from the floor, including a season-high two 3-pointers.

He entered the Cleveland State game shooting 15.8 percent from beyond the arc.

“I’ve been shooting it well [in practice],” Nolte said, “so it’s a little frustrating when you get into games and it’s not falling. But it was nice to, after the break, come back for a home game and have some shots fall.”

Bennett said Nolte’s outside shooting “gives us a nice dimension … It was good to see him knock some down and play with some moxie out there.”

The game, televised by ESPNU, was Virginia’s first at JPJ since Nov. 25. With most students gone for the holidays, the crowd of 11,812 wasn’t especially boisterous, and the Cavaliers were coming off an extended break for final exams.

Still, Bennett didn’t want his players looking for excuses Thursday night.

“We’ve practiced hard,” he said. “We’ve gotten rest. I said, `If you can play, you can play.’ I didn’t want them to have that crutch.”

Junior guard Trey Lewis, with 18 points, was the only Cleveland State player to score in double figures. Lewis was coming off a game in which he hit nine 3-pointers, but Brogdon gave him little room Thursday night. Five of Lewis’ points came in the final 3:15, after Virginia had built its lead back to 20.

Asked about Brogdon’s defense, Anderson said, “It doesn’t surprise us at all that he steps up to every single challenge and says, `I want to guard the best guy.’ Coach has the trust in him, and we have the trust in him. He did a tremendous job on a guy like that who can really fill it up.”

As always, Bennett said, the Cavaliers’ goal to is make opponents take “contested shots. And for the majority of the game we did.”

The `Hoos will play once more before breaking for Christmas. At noon Sunday, in a marquee non-conference game that ESPNU will carry, Virginia hosts Harvard (7-1) at sold-out JPJ.

“Another well-coached team that has really established itself. Hopefully they had an 18-day break for their exams,” Bennett said, smiling.

Not quite, but the Crimson hasn’t played since Dec. 8.

Under former Duke star Tommy Amaker, Harvard has made three straight appearances in the NCAA tournament. Amaker has recruited well at the Ivy League school, but one player he couldn’t land was Brogdon, who canceled an official visit to Harvard after committing to Virginia in August 2010.

At least one family member wasn’t thrilled with his decision that summer. His grandmother wanted Brogdon to attend Harvard.

Asked which team she’ll be pulling for Sunday, Brogdon smiled. “I told Coach Bennett I don’t know, but hopefully us.”

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