By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The venues change, as do the opponents, but a constant has emerged this basketball season: Virginia’s ability to overcome adversity it encounters during games.
When the Cavaliers arrived at the Joyce Center, their rÃ©sumÃ© already included road victories over Maryland, VCU and ACC rival Miami. Notre Dame joined that list Saturday night.
“Once again we ended up going against something that challenges us in a different way, whether it’s an overtime game, or whether it’s [being] down eight in the game,” junior swingman Justin Anderson said. “It’s just always a different challenge. And for us to break through and fight through, I think it’s great for our team.”
In an arena where the Fighting Irish had won five straight games against teams ranked in The Associated Press’ top 10, No. 3 UVa ended that streak. In the process, the Wahoos silenced the home fans in the sellout crowd of 9,149.
The `Hoos scored nine of the game’s final 12 points — 13th-ranked Notre Dame hit a trey with seven-tenths of a second remaining — to secure a hard-earned 62-56 victory.
“Down the stretch you gotta make plays in a setting like this,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said, and his players made most of the decisive ones.
After Pat Connaughton put the Irish ahead 51-50, Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon answered with a 3-pointer from the left wing. Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant, blanketed by Brogdon for most of the game, slipped free for a stepback jumper that made it 53-53, but from there the Cavaliers took control.
A trey by Anderson made it 56-53 with 3:44 to play, and UVa ratcheted up its defensive intensity. Shots that earlier in the game had dropped for Notre Dame were no longer open, or failed to fall, and the `Hoos slowly pulled away. Brogdon’s drive with 1:12 remaining made it 58-53, and then Anderson hit both ends of a one-and-one with 21.5 seconds to play. Brogdon did the same with 8.8 seconds left, and the Irish were vanquished.
“At the end of the day I don’t think it was us losing the game as much as it was them winning the game,” said Connaughton, a 6-5 senior who led all scorers with 21 points.
The win moved the `Hoos (15-0, 3-0), off to their best start since 1980-81, to the top of the ACC standings and knocked Notre Dame (15-2, 3-1) into second place.
“I think you really need to give credit to Virginia,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “They made big jump shots when they had to and that gave them some space. They played like a team that’s won a championship when they had to down the stretch.”
For many national media members, Notre Dame was a fashionable pick to upset defending ACC champion UVa. The Irish entered with an 11-game winning streak and were ranked first nationally in field-goal percentage (54.8) and third in scoring (85.0 ppg). They were shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range and 63.6 percent on two-point field goals.
But little came easily for Notre Dame against Virginia’s Pack Line defense, especially around the basket. Led by Connaughton (4 for 9), the Irish were 10 for 24 on 3-pointers, but they made only 10 of 35 shots (28.6 percent) from inside the arc. Overall they shot 33.9 percent from the floor.
For the Cavaliers, this was the 40th consecutive ACC game in which their opponent shot less than 50 percent from the floor.
Grant, a 6-5 senior who came in averaging a team-high 17.3 points, had only six Saturday night, in large part because of Brogdon’s relentless defense.
“He’s really taken pride in his individual on-ball slides,” Bennett said of Brogdon, a 6-5, 215-pound redshirt junior. “And he’s strong, and he’s big, with those long arms, strong hands. I thought he had great support behind him. Guys were in position and we were helping, so that was good. But Malcolm … was a roadblock. You could see him spreading out with that length, and Grant was going to have to make some tough shots, either contested shots or runners at an angle. And Malcolm just didn’t yield, almost all game.”
Brogdon said Grant is “such a talented player. He’s one of the best in college basketball. When you can frustrate a guy like that or play good defense against him, you can see it in their face. Stuff was just a little bit tougher tonight for him, and that gives you energy.”
At the other end, 6-8 senior Darion Atkins led Virginia with a season-high 14 points. His eight rebounds and two blocked shots were team highs too.
“I thought Darion was the X-factor for us tonight,” said Brogdon, who finished with 13 points and a team-high four assists. “I thought he was terrific on both ends, super active, scoring, giving us buckets when we needed them.”
Atkins, who came in averaging 6.5 points, scored six of the Cavaliers’ first 12 against Notre Dame.
“That was real good,” Bennett said, “and then we went to him again inside [in the second half], and he was real good defensively too.”
Atkins, who as a senior at Landon School in Bethesda, Md., chose UVa over Notre Dame, made 7 of 11 shots Saturday night.
“I’m pretty close to the guys [at Notre Dame], so it was a lot of fun,” Atkins said. “The atmosphere was great, and it was fun playing against those guys.”
One of those guys is his friend Grant, who also grew up in the D.C. area. Atkins and Grant talked Saturday morning after the Cavaliers’ shootaround at the Joyce Center and then again after the game that night.
“He was like, `Man, when did your offensive game develop? When did you get a jump-hook?’ ” Atkins said, smiling. “He was trying to joke me, but it was all good.”
One of Shayok’s classmates, Isaiah Wilkins, went scoreless Saturday, but the 6-7 forward played a significant role anyway. Unhappy with his team’s lackluster play, Bennett turned to Wilkins less than two minutes into the second half after Notre Dame opened up a seven-point lead.
“We said, `We need someone to give us a lift, give us energy,’ and he did that,” Bennett said of Wilkins, who hadn’t played since Virginia’s Dec. 21 rout of Harvard.
Wilkins gave up a 3-pointer to Connaughton about a minute after checking into the game. That gave the Irish their largest lead, at 34-26, but Wilkins kept battling, and the Cavaliers’ comeback began. In 14 minutes, Wilkins collected four rebounds and helped Virginia impose its will defensively.
“I thought he gave us a great lift. He’s so active,” Bennett said of Wilkins, who like Brogdon starred at Greater Atlanta Christian School.
“He’s going to be a good one. He does a lot of the things that we really value in our program, and he’s just been working, getting extra shots.
“I said [to Wilkins], `You’re not playing a whole lot. Are you OK?’ He said, `Coach, I’m fine. I just want to get better. Can I get more reps on the scout team? Can I lift extra with Coach [Mike] Curtis?’ That’s the kind of guy you want in your program.”
Anderson echoed Bennett’s praise of Wilkins.
“He was huge for us,” Anderson said. “Kind of reminded me of when I was a freshman, when I would come in and just try to play as hard as you can defensively, and just jump all over the place, just scream, yell, and keep everybody on the same page as far as energy level. And I think he really stepped up and he did that for us.”
Wilkins said: “The older guys and the coaches are always saying, `Stay ready, because you never know when your turn’s going to come.’ I was just trying to stay positive and be ready, and when my number was called, I tried to step up as much as I could.”
Virginia, which routed Notre Dame twice last season, bolted to a 16-6 lead Saturday night, and another romp seemed possible. But the Irish answered with 13 consecutive points as the Cavaliers grew stagnant on offense and broke down on defense.
At intermission, UVa trailed 27-24, and neither Anderson nor Brogdon had a field goal.
“I said [to the team] at halftime, `You guys look so finesse. You gotta get back to running your offense with purpose, with screens and cuts, instead of just standing and looking,’ ” Bennett recalled. “We really got away from making Notre Dame work.”
The Irish are better on defense than in 2013-14, but Virginia overwhelmed them in the second half Saturday. UVa made 15 of 26 attempts from the floor (57.7 percent) in the final 20 minutes to lock down its eighth straight victory in this series.
With Notre Dame bombing in 3-pointers and the home crowd roaring, Bennett had challenged his players.
“I said, `If this is the way it’s going to go, you’re going to get blown out of this gym,’ ” Bennett recalled. “I just think they hunkered down and they got after it.
“You’re always on the edge, because a team like [Notre Dame] can get going, but we didn’t rattle, and I think our experience helped with that.”
UP NEXT: Virginia returns home to play Clemson (9-6, 1-2). The teams meet Tuesday at 8 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena in a game the ACC Network will televise.
The Tigers played Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, where they beat the host Panthers, 71-62.
Under Bennett, Virginia is 4-3 against Clemson. The Cavaliers lead the series 70-52.
About 600 tickets remain for Tuesday night’s game. Tickets can be purchased online at VirginiaSports.com. To buy tickets over the phone, call (800) 542-8821 or (434) 924-8821. Tickets also can be purchased at the Virginia Athletics Ticket Office in Bryant Hall at Scott Stadium.