By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG — Its perfect record notwithstanding, his basketball team is not invincible, UVa head coach Tony Bennett knows. The Cavaliers figure to stumble at some point this season, and when it happens Bennett won’t be shocked.
“Tonight might have been the night,” he said Sunday at Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum. “[A Virginia victory] didn’t look probable.”
Indeed, as the midpoint of the second half approached, the Hokies led 43-33, and the Wahoos had not scored in nine minutes. With six minutes left, Virginia Tech still led by seven. But Bennett exhorted his players to keep battling and to remain poised.
“Now, it didn’t look promising, I know that,” Bennett said. “But with college basketball, with young guys, you just keep hanging and you never know.”
His players rewarded Bennett’s faith in them. Led by junior swingman Justin Anderson, who scored 10 of his team-high 12 points in the final 7:03, second-ranked Virginia stormed back to capture a 50-47 win over Virginia Tech.
Such heroics are nothing new for Anderson in Blacksburg. He tormented the Hokies at Cassell Coliseum last season, too, scoring all nine of his points in the final 3:30 to help the `Hoos rally for a 57-53 victory.
“He stays very confident in himself,” UVa senior Darion Atkins said of Anderson, the team’s leading scorer this season. “He never doubts himself. If he plays bad in the first half, he’ll come out in the second half, and he’ll finish.”
For the Cavaliers (19-0 overall, 7-0 ACC), the victory was their sixth straight in this series and fifth straight at Cassell Coliseum. The Hokies (8-11, 0-6) are the ACC’s 14th-place team, but they challenged Virginia as few opponents have this season.
On an afternoon when UVa shot only 34.7 percent from the floor, Virginia Tech finished at 45.2 percent.
“It’s a great win for us,” said Atkins, who totaled nine points and four rebounds. “It was a battle. It was an ugly game, but the way we fought back in the second half really meant a lot.”
Sophomore point guard London Perrantes started the comeback with a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 10:18 to play, ending the Hokies’ 16-0 run. Perrantes’ trey pulled the Cavaliers to 43-36, and Anderson’s two free throws at the 7:03 mark made it 43-38.
The Hokies answered with a layup, but Anderson, 0 for 4 from the floor, coolly buried a 3-pointer from the left corner to make it 45-41, and the UVa fans in the sellout crowd of 9,847 sounded their approval.
“Man, it felt good to finally see it go through the net,” Anderson said. “After a couple bad shooting games, shooting days, that felt good, which gave me the confidence for the next one.”
Bennett said: “It was significant. We just needed the seal to be broken, as we say.”
With the Hokies faltering, the `Hoos kept coming. Atkins made both ends of a one-and-one to pull Virginia to 45-43. Then, coming out of the final media timeout, Bennett called for a newly installed play, one that featured the high-flying Anderson.
“Justin’s been begging me for three years, `When are you going to put in a lob for me, Coach, when are you going to put in a lob?’ ” Bennett said, smiling. “So I said, `There you go, Justin.’
“I’m glad we put it in, because it was well-timed.”
Perrantes, about 25 feet from the basket, spotted Anderson open on the baseline against Tech’s 2-3 zone and lofted a gorgeous pass toward the rim. Anderson did the rest, soaring for a slam that tied the game and silenced the Hokies’ fans.
“That dunk definitely came at a good time,” Perrantes said. “It stopped their momentum and kept our momentum going.”
On such a play, Perrantes said, “You gotta be patient, and you gotta see what the defense is doing. If the defense has already sniffed it out, then you can’t throw it. So there’s a lot of stuff going on with that play. But when you have a freak athlete like Justin, it’s easy on my part. I really just looked at the defense and threw it close to the rim, and he did the rest.”
Even before he enrolled at UVa, Anderson said with a smile, he’d asked Bennett about an alley-oop, “and he said, `We’re going to make something happen.’ ”
In practice Saturday, Bennett turned to Anderson and said, “Compose yourself.”
“And I’m like, `What did I do?’ ” Anderson recalled Sunday. “I thought I got in trouble for a second.”
He wasn’t in trouble. Bennett showed the play to Anderson, who was taken aback. “I said, `Wait, wait, wait, Coach. You want London to throw me an alley-oop?’ and everybody started laughing.”
The dunk was only one of the highlights Anderson produced Sunday. With 2:43 left, his second trey, again off a pass from Perrantes, put the `Hoos ahead 48-45, and then a stickback by redshirt junior Anthony Gill made it 50-45.
The Hokies closed to 50-47 on a layup by guard Ahmed Hill, and then they rebounded a missed shot by UVa guard Malcolm Brogdon with 31 seconds left.
After a Tech timeout, the 6-6 Anderson asserted himself on the defensive end, rising to block a 3-point attempt by guard Malik Muller. Atkins grabbed the ball and was fouled with 12.8 seconds left. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving the Hokies one last chance.
The ball went, as expected, to guard Adam Smith, who’d scored a game-high 15 points. Smith had chance to force overtime, but his deep 3-point attempt, which Perrantes contested from a safe distance, bounced off the rim, and the `Hoos could finally exhale.
“I think the experience of our guys helped,” said Bennett, who used a four-guard lineup for long stretches in the second half.
“I thought the composure was there. We have stuff to work on, and we showed all that, but I told our guys how proud I was that they did stay steady enough, and then made some big shots.”
Brogdon and Gill scored eight points apiece Sunday. The 6-8 Gill, who had a team-high seven boards, helped the Cavaliers outrebound the shorter Hokies 33-21. Perrantes finished with six points, five rebounds and a game-high seven assists.
“I feel like when we got down 10, that’s when we kind of stepped it up,” Perrantes said. “I don’t know where it was the whole game, but once we got down 10, I feel like we all just talked to each other and said, `All right, we gotta do something now.’
“The rest of it is history. We came back and won. ”
And the Cavaliers did so in the most hostile of environments.
“It was crazy in there today,” Gill said. “It was really loud. A couple times [Tech fans] were getting really hyped and stuff like that, yelling at us, and I was just looking in the crowd and just smiling, like, `We understand what this is. We understand how to play in this kind of environment, so it’s good.’ ”
The `Hoos have won at JMU, at Maryland, at VCU, at Miami (Fla.) and at Notre Dame, among other places, this season.
“That experience is huge,” Bennett said. “There’s just no substitute for it. They’ve been in these spots. They’ve had success. They’ve had failures, so they know, `All right, here’s how I gotta be.’ That’s experience. They didn’t go too shaken [Sunday], and I think it just showed.”
Every victory is valuable, Bennett said, but to win “on the road, in a rivalry game, in a tough setting, it’s important.
“You gotta look at it realistically and say, OK, we showed some vulnerability. We showed some areas that we gotta keep fine-tuning or cleaning up. But to struggle in certain areas — again, credit to Virginia Tech — and come through, that’s important, that’s composure. You take it one at a time, and that’s an important one.”
UP NEXT: Virginia doesn’t play again until Saturday night, when fifth-ranked Duke (17-2, 4-2) visits John Paul Jones Arena for a 7 o’clock game that ESPN will televise.
Also Saturday, ESPN will broadcast its College GameDay show from JPJ, and all fans are invited to attend. Gates open at 9 a.m. and admission is free.
Duke defeated St. John’s 77-68 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon to give Mike Krzyzewski his 1,000th victory as a college head coach.
The Blue Devils hold a 116-50 lead in their series with the Cavaliers. UVa, however, has won two of the teams’ past three meetings, including their most recent encounter at JPJ, on Feb. 28, 2013.