By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The fanfare that surrounded College GameDay’s visit to Charlottesville over the weekend was “a little bit intoxicating,” Tony Bennett said, and the University of Virginia men’s basketball coach came away with mixed feelings about the ESPN showcase.
“Not my cup of tea, I’ll be honest with you,” Bennett said Monday night at North Carolina’s Dean E. Smith Center. “But it was great for our program, great for our fans, and I’m very thankful for all that attention.
“But none of that stuff matters. It’s about when the ball’s tipped — I say that all the time — and playing the way we need to play. And we didn’t do that against Duke for the first 20 minutes.”
In the first clash of top-5 teams in Charlottesville since February 1982, then-No. 2 Virginia hosted then-No. 4 Duke at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday night. After sputtering for most of the first half, the Cavaliers took control in the second, only to succumb to a late barrage of 3-pointers and lose 69-63 to the Blue Devils.
The defeat was the first of the season for the Cavaliers. Their decline was short-lived. The ACC’s first-place team returned to form Monday night, pounding No. 12 North Carolina 75-64 before a crowd of 20,102 and an ESPN audience.
“They fought,” Bennett said of his players. “I think we got back to the mentality that we needed to. Our way, it’s a blue-collar way, it’s a fighting way, and our guys, I think, responded well and really rallied.”
The third-ranked Wahoos (20-1, 8-1) built an 18-point lead before the Tar Heels (17-6, 7-3) rallied late to make the final margin more respectable.
“I’m sitting here thinking that we need some practice,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Virginia’s sense of urgency was so much greater than ours. All I’ve got to say is they kicked our butts, and it will help us to get some practice time.”
Four players scored in double figures for UVa: redshirt junior guard Malcolm Brogdon (17 points), junior swingman Justin Anderson (16), sophomore guard London Perrantes (15) and redshirt junior big man Anthony Gill (13).
“We just wanted to get back at it,” Gill said of the team’s mindset after the loss to Duke.
As impressive as the Cavaliers’ balance on offense was against UNC, so was their work on defense over the game’s final 30 minutes. The `Heels, who hit 10 of their first 16 field-attempts and scored on eight straight possessions during one first-half stretch, cooled down considerably as UVa ratcheted up its defensive intensity.
UNC shot 37.9 percent from the floor in the second half and 44.6 percent for the game.
“I thought in the Duke game we were lacking mentally,” Brogdon said. “In this game I don’t think we were. I think we were alert. I think we were aware. We were more anticipatory than reactive.”
Gill, who played 27 minutes off the bench, led the Cavaliers with seven rebounds. Anderson, 3 of 5 from 3-point range, also contributed three rebounds, two blocked shots, two steals and a career-high seven assists.
“We had a chance tonight to get back to who we were, and that’s the underdog, trying to put our hard hats on and impose our will,” Anderson said.
“As much as I wish we could have protected our house [against Duke] and still did what we did tonight here, it’s almost like a blessing in disguise. You have to fall before you can stand back up, and I think we did a great job responding here tonight on the road.”
The Tar Heels scored only two fast-break points, and that basket came with 1:52 remaining and the outcome effectively settled. That’s the kind of transition defense for which the Cavaliers have become known under Bennett. Against Duke, however, UVa allowed 14 fast-break points, 10 in the first half.
“So it started with that,” Bennett said Monday night of his team’s improved defense.
Not since Feb. 6, 2003, when the Cavaliers defeated No. 8 Maryland 86-78 in College Park, had they won on the road against a opponent ranked higher than UNC.
Before an intense practice Sunday afternoon at JPJ, UVa’s coaching staff delivered a stern message to the players.
“We just said, `We gotta get back to some good old-fashioned blue-collar basketball,’ ” Bennett recalled Monday night, “and I thought that’s what we did. The guys, when they do that and they’re right, they can play.”
UVa, which made 29 of 56 shots from the floor, became only the second team to shoot better than 50 percent against UNC this season. The other was top-ranked Kentucky.
“They were tough enough to execute their plays down the stretch,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said of the Cavaliers. “They didn’t fall [apart] under pressure. They got the shots that they wanted, and we didn’t.
“Really, they’re a good team because they execute, and they can absorb runs. Teams can go on a run against them and they don’t falter. They run their stuff, they trust their stuff, and they buy into what their coach is telling them, and that’s why they’re successful. They’re not the most talented team in our league, top to bottom. They buy into what Coach Bennett preaches to them, and it works when you really do that. ”
Paige, a junior, led Carolina with 15 points, but 10 came in the final 2:22, after UVa had stretched its lead to 68-52. For most of the game, Brogdon shadowed him.
“He didn’t get too many easy ones,” Bennett said of Paige, who at 6-1 is four inches shorter than Brogdon.
“Marcus is a great shooter, great player,” Brogdon said. “There’s really only so much you can do. But getting a hand up and making it as difficult as I could, that was my goal.”
Perrantes, who leads Virginia in assists, had six against UNC. More noteworthy was his assertiveness as a shooter. He was 6 for 10 from the floor and scored in double figures for only the second time this season. The first time was in an overtime win over Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., where he scored 26 points.
Against Duke, Perrantes was 3 for 5 from the floor, and he passed up several opportunities to shoot.
“We talked about that,” Bennett said. “I don’t worry about him forcing. But you need to look for the shots, step up and take `em.”
Perrantes complied Monday night, with the desired results.
“That just adds another dimension to us,” Bennett said. “We needed all of it, for sure, and I liked his approach. It was good.”
Perrantes said: “I just took whatever the defense gave me, and I just was more aggressive. I knew if I knocked down shots it would open up more things for the team, and it ended up doing that.”
By the time the final horn sounded Monday night, many UNC fans had left the Dean Dome, and the Cavaliers had made an emphatic statement.
Which is not to suggest the `Hoos have been underappreciated in college basketball circles. When an ESPN reporter suggested Monday night that UVa had not been receiving its due nationally, Bennett smiled and politely disagreed.
“You should have been there for College GameDay,” Bennett said. “You missed a lot of due. There was a lot of due coming our way there.”
And that can be distracting.
“I think that’s the challenge always, when a lot of attention starts flowing your way and things are there and everybody’s patting you on the back and telling you how wonderful you are,” Bennett said. “That’s fool’s gold. You can’t be like that, and I think our guys understand that.”
His UNC counterpart, a Hall of Famer, will attest to that.
“Bottom line is, I admire what Tony’s team has done,” Williams said. “He does a great job coaching and his kids have bought into it completely.”
HEADING HOME: Virginia plays three of its next four games at John Paul Jones Arena, starting Saturday against No. 9 Louisville (18-3, 6-2). The Cavaliers host the Cardinals at 7 p.m. in a game ESPN will televise.
Virginia’s remaining home games are all sellouts.
Louisville, which is in its 14th season under Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, meets Miami (14-7, 4-4) in Coral Gables, Fla., at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The `Hoos lead their series with the Cardinals 5-3, but the teams haven’t met since Feb. 17, 1990.