By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLESTON, S.C.– After nearly a week in this historic city, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team headed home late, late Sunday: weary and sleep-deprived after a series of 9:30 p.m. games, but with a gleaming trophy in tow.
“I feel like we’ve been here forever,” senior center Mike Tobey said before leaving the College of Charleston’s TD Arena, “but it was good to come out with a championship.”
The sixth-ranked Cavaliers arrived in Charleston still stinging from the nationally televised loss they suffered Nov. 16 against George Washington at the Smith Center in D.C.
“It was definitely tough for us,” junior point guard London Perrantes said of the 73-68 defeat, their first loss in a regular-season non-conference game since December 2013.
The Wahoos (4-1) left Charleston in a much better state of mind after recording three emphatic victories. To the delight of the orange-clad fans who dominated the 5,100-seat arena each night, UVA defeated Bradley 82-57 on Thursday, Long Beach State 87-52 on Friday and, finally, George Mason 83-66 on Sunday to capture the Charleston Classic title.
“I think we got back to playing Virginia basketball,” Tobey said. “I think that was the No. 1 thing that we wanted to come out of this tournament. And it stinks that it took a loss to wake us up, but I’d rather lose in the beginning of the season than the end.”
Perrantes agreed. “We can’t do anything about that loss but move on and learn from it, and hopefully it helps us in the long run.”
In 2014-15, when they went 30-4 and repeated as ACC regular-season champions, the Cavaliers scored at least 80 points in only two games: a 83-72 victory over Davidson and a 89-80 double-overtime win over the Miami Hurricanes. They’ve hit the 80-point mark four times already this season.
More significant to head coach Tony Bennett was the progress his team has shown defensively since the GW game.
“I thought we took steps in the right direction,” Bennett said.
More work remains for Virginia, which hosts Lehigh (0-4) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena. George Mason, coming off a semifinal upset of Oklahoma State, proved difficult for UVA to slow in the first half Sunday night. Virginia shot 60 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes, but the Patriots shot 53.6 percent.
“I thought we had some trouble, but that’s a credit to them,” Bennett said. “They’re well-coached, and those guys were hard for us to contain. The guards, they’re real shifty, they run some nice action, and they attacked. And the way the game’s being called now, it’s a challenge [for defenders]. But I thought we adjusted in the second half better. I thought we were a little harder to score against.”
In the second half, UVA limited Mason (2-3) to 33.3-percent accuracy from the floor and, not coincidentally, won going away. Bennett liked what he saw from his players, many of whom helped the `Hoos lead the nation in scoring defense last season.
“I think we took a step in the right direction for the most part, but you have to start over every game,” Bennett said. “Once you assume you’ve got it defensively, then you’re going down the wrong path. And that’s a narrow path to be locked in, dialed in and right defensively. That’s something that you just have to stay after.”
On offense, the Cavaliers picked apart the Patriots from start to finish. Four players scored at least 14 points apiece for Virginia, which shot 57.1 percent from the floor. And that was on night when sophomore swingman Marial Shayok, who had career highs in scoring against both Bradley and Long Beach State, was not a major factor offensively.
“I think when we share the ball, we have a good balanced attack of inside-out,” Bennett said. “With London playing the way he has been, and Marial, there’s just some nice depth. Hopefully we’ll keep it up.”
Fifth-year seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill scored 21 and 15 points, respectively, against the Patriots, and Tobey contributed 14 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench. But no Cavalier shined brighter than Perrantes.
“Very efficient,” Bennett said.
A 6-2 junior from Los Angeles, Perrantes posted his second career double-double (16 points, 11 assists) in the championship game and continued his torrid shooting. He hit 8 of 13 shots from beyond the arc in Charleston and was named the tournament’s MVP. (Brogdon also made the all-tourney team.)
“This offense just gives us a lot of open shots,” Perrantes said, “and I’ve been knocking down my shots and playing with more confidence, and it’s been helping.”
After shooting 43.7 percent from 3-point range as a freshman in 2013-14, when he started 33 games, Perrentes dipped to 31.6 percent last season. He knew his team needed more from him as a junior, and so he put up thousands and thousands of shots this offseason.
In the opener against Morgan State, Perrantes made 2 of 3 attempts from beyond the arc. Against George Washington, however, he was 1 for 4 from long range and 2 for 8 overall.
“It was tough,” Perrantes said. “I felt like at GW I definitely didn’t shoot the ball the way I wanted to. I felt like technique-wise I didn’t shoot the ball the way I wanted to. So just being able to [return to form against Mason] was good. I put in a lot of work this offseason, and I’m not going to go away from it.”
Perrantes hasn’t hesitated to look for his shot this season, and that’s exactly how the Cavalies’ coaching staff wants him to play.
“I thought London took charge of looking for himself but still running the show,” Bennett said. “I think that’s important for us, and he stepped up.”
Perrantes said: “I just feel like I’m playing with more confidence. I think I’ve gotten a little bit of balance, but I’m just playing freely. Just having a lot of fun.”
Bennett said he’s not sure if Perrantes ever will “be a 15, 20 shots a game [player] — maybe, perhaps — but he needs to look for his shot the way he’s doing it, without losing who he is as a player. He’s good out there setting people up.”
Perrantes’ teammates will attest to that. After Mason pulled to 55-48 early in the second half, Virginia answered with 10 straight points. The highlight of that run was a pass from Perrantes to the 7-0 Tobey for a fast-break dunk.
“I think when you can get those opportunistic transition buckets, for us that’s very important,” Bennett said. “And I thought they came at just the right time.”
Bennett has been experimenting with lineups, and 6-11 redshirt freshman Jack Salt made his first start Sunday night, in Tobey’s place. Bennett said he believes the Cavaliers are more effective inside when Tobey is paired with 6-7 sophomore Isaiah Wilkins and Salt with the 6-8 Gill.
“You’ve got an offensive guy [in Gill], and then Jack is bigger, physical, alert defensively,” Bennett said.
“And then Mike’s big and can really score the ball and gives us some nice things, and Isaiah’s real alert and active. So I think they’re a good pair, and I thought Mike responded well. I’m sure he would have wanted to start, and it doesn’t mean Anthony and Mike can’t be on the floor [or start] together. But I just felt like what was best for the team at this point was to take a look at those combinations, and I thought we did a good job on 14.”
Bennett was referring to GMU center Shevon Thompson, a 6-11 senior who came in averaging 12.5 points and 13.8 rebounds. The Cavaliers limited him to 11 points and eight boards.
“We did a decent job with our [post] trap, and that was important,” Bennett said.
Tobey, who started the first four games, said he used Bennett’s decision “as a little motivation. I came out aggressive, and the team played well.”
In the final seconds of the game Sunday night, a chant often heard at JPJ sounded inside TD Arena: “U-V-A! U-V-A! U-V-A!” About an hour later, the Cavaliers, tired but happy, boarded the plane that would take them home to Charlottesville.
“It was good,” Perrantes said of the Charleston experience. “It’s team-bonding, and just being able to play three games, back-to-back almost, gave us another opportunity to get GW off our mind. We’ve had three games, and now we’re moving forward. It was a lot of fun.”