Jan. 23, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — It still qualifies as newsworthy when the UVa men’s basketball team holds an opponent under 30 points. That may not be the case much longer, though, if the Cavaliers continue to play such suffocating defense.

Virginia has played — and won — 18 games this season. In three of them, its opponent failed to reach the 30-point mark. First came Rutgers (45-26) on Nov. 29, and then Harvard (76-27) on Dec. 21.

Georgia Tech, to its chagrin, joined that group Thursday night. Before a near-capacity crowd of 13,809 at John Paul Jones Arena, the second-ranked Wahoos scored 57 points and held the Yellow Jackets to 28 — the fewest ever by a team in an ACC regular-season game.

“There were a few breakdowns, but not many, and that was nice to see,” UVa head coach Tony Bennett, ever the perfectionist, said of his team’s defense.

The Jackets’ previous record for fewest points in a game was 29, against Tulane on Jan. 9, 1948. Georgia Tech’s first possession ended with a shot-clock violation Thursday night, and things never got much better for Brian Gregory’s team.

“I give Virginia credit,” Gregory said. “They did a really good job. They make it so you have to make every open shot, and we struggled to make open shots tonight. We struggled against their overall defense.”

UVa, which stretched its home winning streak to a JPJ-record 21 games, came in ranked second nationally in scoring defense (50.6 ppg). The Cavaliers’ offense is better some nights than on others, but “they play the same defense every time,” Gregory said. “In this day and age, to play that type of defense without always getting the reward on offense is credit to Tony Bennett and his staff.”

The Jackets (9-9, 0-6) were 0 for 12 from 3-point range and shot only 24.5 percent from the floor overall. No player scored more than seven points for Georgia Tech.

“We build on each stop we get, and then it turns into our offense,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “It really gets our offense going. But I also think our fans get into it. They love us getting stops as much as they love us scoring, so I think that’s really tremendous for us.”

Brogdon is from the Atlanta area, as are two other UVa players: freshman forward Isaiah Wilkins and junior forward Evan Nolte.

“You can definitely feel the energy building up,” Wilkins said. “Whether you’re at home watching [on TV] or in the gym, on the bench or on the court, you can kind of hear it get louder and louder and louder as the shot clock wears down. It’s real cool.”

Bennett expects his team, when opponents have the ball, to compete relentlessly on every possession. The goal is to get “gaps” — three stops in a row.

“We’re not going to give in,” Bennett said, summing up the Cavaliers’ mentality. “We’re not going to give them an easy look. Everything’s got to be contested … Don’t yield, don’t yield, and I think our guys embraced that most of the possessions.”

Fourteen times this season Virginia has held an opponent scoreless for at least six consecutive minutes. The latest such stretch came in the first half Thursday night and allowed the Cavaliers to open up a 23-10 lead. At the break it was 28-16, and Georgia Tech’s struggles mounted in the second half.

The Jackets didn’t hit the 20-point mark until nearly 29 minutes had elapsed.

“They had a hard night shooting, and then we kept them off the glass, so I think that combination is what helped us out,” Bennett said.

In a game matching two of the nation’s top rebounding teams, UVa totaled 36 boards, to 33 for Georgia Tech. Darion Atkins, a 6-8 senior, led the Cavaliers with eight rebounds, and 6-8 redshirt junior Anthony Gill came off the bench to pull down six. The Jackets grabbed 10 offensive rebounds but turned them into only four second-chance points.

Brogdon, with 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting, was the only Cavalier to score in double figures Thursday. But seven of his teammates finished with at least five points apiece.

“Those are our best games,” said junior swingman Justin Anderson, who had seven points, four assists and four rebounds, “because guys are just getting into rhythm and just making the extra pass and seeing each other open and everybody’s high-fiving and things like that. It was good for everybody to get in a good rhythm out there, and I’m just happy it happened the way it did.”

Bennett said: “When we’re playing well there’s good balance and depth … You can’t just lock down on one guy and think, `We got `em.’ I think that’s what makes for a good offense. When we’re right, when we’re sharing the ball, moving the ball, we become even more effective. I don’t think we’re great offensively, but we have the nice balance and nice depth that you can’t key on one guy.”

Virginia is 6-0 in ACC play for the first time since 1980-81, and Brogdon has been sensational against conference foes. On Thursday night, he tormented the Jackets throughout the game, getting anywhere he wanted on the court with the ball.

“He’s very multi-dimensional, and that completeness is what you always look for in guards,” Bennett said.

Early in the first half, Brogdon drove the baseline and soared for a one-handed dunk that brought the crowd to its feet. Alas, one of the officials ruled Brogdon had stepped out of bounds.

The Cavaliers’ authority on above-the-rim plays, the 6-6 Anderson, asked Brogdon, who’s not known for his dunking, about the move.

“I said,’ What were you feeling like today?’ He smiled at me,” Anderson told reporters. “He said, `Dude, that ref should have just let that count. I probably won’t do that again for the rest of the year.’ And I said, `You ain’t lying.’ ”

Midway through the second half, though, Brogdon made another spectacular shot, and this one counted. He drove to the hoop, jumped from the right side and then banked in a left-handed layup when he emerged from under the basket on the left side.

“It was nice. It was nicer than normal,” Anderson said, smiling. “I just love seeing him be athletic. I’m not going to say his athleticism is underestimated, because he’s not athletic at all. But he has it in him at times to make crazy athletic plays.”

Brogdon said: “I was actually going to go up and try to dunk it, but I saw [6-8, 276-pound Demarco] Cox come over. He’s a huge guy. So I tried to take my chances and go up and under him.”

As the final seconds ticked off the clock Thursday night, fans stood to give the `Hoos, 18-0 for the first time since 1980-81, one final ovation. Later, when reporters asked Anderson about Virginia’s defensive prowess, he acknowledged that holding an opponent under 30 points was impressive.

“But at the same time it’s a long season,” Anderson said, “and we all know how the ACC is, with the tremendous amount of talent that we face night in and night out. We have to make sure that we just continue to stay humble, play together and just try to keep putting our best effort in front of us.”

UP NEXT: Virginia plays Sunday afternoon at Virginia Tech (8-10, 0-5). The 1 o’clock game at sold-out Cassell Coliseum will be televised by the ACC Network.

“It gets really loud in there,” Anderson said Thursday night. “The light’s not as bright as in other gyms. I love that environment. They have a great student section. They’re jumping all around up there.

“I expect an intense, great environment, and it’s going to be a tough, hard-fought game … It’s going to be live in there.”

The `Hoos have won five straight over the Hokies and seven of the teams’ past eight meetings. UVa leads the series 86-53.

Virginia Tech is in its first season under former Marquette coach Buzz Williams. The Hokies, who lost at home Thursday night to No. 8 Notre Dame, have dropped six games in a row since defeating Presbyterian on Dec. 27.

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