Feb. 8, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Late Saturday night brought the sobering news that All-ACC candidate Justin Anderson, the emotional leader of the UVa men’s basketball team, would be sidelined at least four weeks with a fractured finger on his left hand.

For the Cavaliers, it’s a significant blow as they head into the final month of the regular season. But this has never been a one-man team, as third-ranked Virginia proved again Saturday night in front of a deafening crowd at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena.

With the 6-6 Anderson, who entered the game as the team’s leading scorer, watching from the bench in the second half, his shooting hand wrapped, the Wahoos defeated a top-15 foe for the second time in a week.

Last Monday night the opponent was No. 12 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Saturday night it was No. 9 Louisville, the newest member of the ACC. The `Hoos allowed only 13 points in the first half — 13 points! — and then held off Louisville’s late charge to win 52-47 and tighten their grip on first place in the conference.

“Every coach talks about a fist, having all the guys playing together, and they’ve got a great fist,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “They have a lot more talent than people recognize, they have tremendous experience, and they have a fabulous coach.”

Pitino was referring to Tony Bennett, who announced after the game that Anderson (13.4 ppg) would have surgery Sunday and is expected to miss four to six weeks. Anderson fractured his finger late in the first half Saturday night.

Virginia (21-1, 9-1) has eight regular-season games remaining, the last a March 7 visit to Louisville (19-4, 7-3). The ACC tournament begins March 10.

“It’s definitely challenging when you have one of your leading scorers out and one of your biggest contributors all-around out,” redshirt junior guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “But as a team we pride ourselves on everybody playing their role to the fullest … It’s a team effort, completely.”

Anderson’s only points Saturday night came on fast-break dunk off a lob pass from sophomore point guard London Perrantes with 5:28 left in the first half. Bennett played Evan Nolte in Anderson’s place for most of the second half, and the 6-8 junior contributed solid defense, heady passing and a crucial 3-pointer.

Brogdon led the Cavaliers with 15 points, and classmate Anthony Gill, a 6-8 forward, totaled 10 points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes off the bench. Mike Tobey, a 7-0 junior, scored nine of the Cavaliers’ first 11 points, and 6-8 senior Darion Atkins had nine points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots and led UVa’s defensive effort on Louisville star Montrezl Harrell.

To outlast the Cardinals without Anderson, Gill said, “showed a lot of heart from everybody else who stepped up. Like Evan Nolte. That was great for him, to go out there and bang that 3 like he did and to play defense like he did also. It also gives us a lot of confidence, to show that when one of our best guys goes down, we can definitely keep playing.”

The `Hoos went into the break leading 24-13 after holding the Cards scoreless for the final 10 minutes of the opening half.

“Their defense is awesome,” Pitino said. “I won’t take anything away from them, but our offense was ridiculous. We just didn’t run our sets. We didn’t move the ball. If you don’t do that you’re going to make Virginia look like the best defensive team in the history of the game. They’re terrific. I love their team, I love what they do, but we fed right into the monster and the crowd.”

That crowd did its part and then some Saturday night. Never were the Cavaliers’ fans louder than when the shot clock was winding down on Louisville possessions.

“I noticed that,” said Bennett, who added that he’s usually too locked in to pay attention to the crowd during games.

His players are much more aware of their supporters’ delight in superior defense.

“You don’t hear that any other place,” Gill said. “I think that the fans really appreciate it and we appreciate that they appreciate it, and all we can do is just go out there and just give it to them.”

Atkins said: “The atmosphere was electric. We had a lot of fun. We were eating it up, man, and when we play like that, people respond.”

The Cardinals eventually found ways to crack UVa’s trademark Pack-Line defense, shooting 52 percent from the floor in the second half. At the other end, the Cavaliers struggled to find their rhythm against a defense that also ranks among the nation’s best.

For the game, in fact, Virginia (33.3 percent) shot worse from the floor than did Louisville (37 percent). But the `Hoos finished with only two turnovers — the fewest forced by the Cards in 481 games under Pitino, according to ESPN — and never unraveled against Louisville’s fullcourt pressure.

“It was just a hard, slugfest defensive game,” Bennett said. “I told our guys before, `You’re going to have to put your hard hat on, and you’re going to have to work defensively.’ … It was one of those games, and the home crowd was terrific. We needed every ounce of emotion and energy that they gave us. And then our guys dug deep and came up with a big one.”

Virginia led by 13 with 13 minutes left, but the Cardinals refused to go quietly. Senior swingman Wayne Blackshear, who was scoreless in the first half, hit a 3-pointer with 7:54 left to pull Louisville to 39-30 and then another about two minutes later to make it 41-35.

With 4:50 remaining and his team leading 42-35, Bennett called a 30-second timeout to set up a play. The Cavaliers ran it to perfection. In the left corner, a few feet from the UVa bench, Brogdon took a pass from Perrantes and buried a 3-pointer.

For the game, Brogdon made only 3 of 13 shots from the floor, and the `Hoos were 2 for 14 from beyond the arc.

“We didn’t shoot it particularly well, that’s obvious, but that was a big one,” Bennett said.

UVa missed its first nine 3-point attempts Saturday night. Nolte, scoreless in his previous three games, finally broke through with 13:17 left, hitting a trey that pushed Virginia’s lead to 32-19.

Late in the game, with the Cavaliers’ lead down to four, Nolte passed up an open shot from the right corner, opting to use more clock. That possession ended with a spinning jump hook by Atkins at the 1:03 mark.

“To pass up the shot, I think, was really smart,” Bennett said.

Atkins’ basket was further proof of his development at the offensive end. Early in his UVa career, he might not have taken that shot, especially at such a crucial juncture, but Atkins entered the Louisville game shooting 52 percent from the floor, and his confidence never has been higher.

“That was an amazing play at the end of the game,” Tobey said of Atkins’ final field goal. “I think some of the coaches were telling him to bring it back out. But I was happy he shot it, because I felt like we needed a bucket, and he was confident and shot it, and the righty hook has gone really well for him.”

To see Atkins “at times be frustrated, but hang in there, keep developing and now have these opportunities to establish himself on both ends of the floor,” Bennett said, “is very rewarding for me as a coach, our staff, and I know it is for him. We’re just going to keep pushing him.”

Only four players scored for Louisville in its first game at JPJ. Guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones combined for 27 points, Harrell scored 12, and Blackshear added eight.

The Cavaliers were especially pleased with their defensive work on Harrell, who in 2013 played for the USA Basketball U19 team on which Bennett was an assistant coach. Four of Harrell’s points came in the final 90 seconds, and he finished with only one offensive rebound.

“I just tried to [keep] him from getting on the offensive glass,” Atkins said. “He’s a great player. He’s Kenneth Faried-like. The guy’s a beast, hands down. It was a great test to go against him. I tried my best against him.”

As most teams do, Virginia struggled to keep Rozier and Jones out of the lane, and with 18.3 seconds left, Jones scored on a drive to pull Louisville to 50-47. Fouled on his off-balance shot, Jones went to the line with an opportunity to make it a two-point game. But he missed his free throw, and Brogdon calmly sank two foul shots with 10.9 seconds remaining to close out the scoring.

Afterward, Pitino called JPJ “a great venue to play college basketball, I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen. It’s my first time here. I think the crowd’s great. I think they’re on top of you. I think the environment is awesome and I think their team is awesome. They can make it very difficult.”

With the victory, Bennett became the only active coach to have beaten each of the college game’s five active Hall of Fame coaches: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, SMU’s Larry Brown, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and, now, Pitino.

This was not a game filled with offensive highlights, but Bennett didn’t mind.

“A lot of people maybe that doesn’t appeal to,” he said, “but I was very happy with that.”

A week earlier, against then-No. 4 Duke, Virginia had blown a late lead and lost 69-63 at JPJ. To see his players’ response to that setback has been gratifying to Bennett.

Against UNC and Louisville, “they played for each other,” Bennett said, “and that’s our way … I said, `When you guys are right and playing for each other, I’ll take you against most anybody,’ and I loved what I saw in that regard.”

RETURN TO TOBACCO ROAD: Virginia plays NC State in Raleigh on Wednesday night. The ACC Network will televise the 8 o’clock game.

The Wolfpack, off this weekend, is 14-10 overall and 5-6 in ACC play. One of its conference losses was to UVa, which beat NC State 61-51 on Jan. 7 at JPJ.

The `Hoos have won seven of their past nine games with the Pack.

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