By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NEW YORK — Before the bus pulled away from Madison Square Garden and headed to the airport, Darion Atkins climbed aboard to congratulate his former teammates and wish them well.
Atkins, whose defensive prowess helped the University of Virginia win 30 games last season, now plays for the Westchester (N.Y.) Knicks in the NBA Development League. Tuesday night found him in the stands at the Garden, where Atkins enjoyed the sights and sounds of No. 10 Virginia’s 70-54 win over No. 14 West Virginia in the first game of a Jimmy V Classic doubleheader.
The Cavaliers, who trailed by 12 points late in the first half, outscored the Mountaineers 40-18 after intermission. With the outcome settled, the orange-clad fans in the late-arriving crowd started a familiar chant that grew in intensity as the final seconds ticked away: “U-V-A! U-V-A! U-V-A!”
In the second half, Virginia (8-1) shot 73.7 percent from the floor overall and 60 percent (3 for 5) from 3-point range. Against the Wahoos’ trademark Pack Line defense in the second half, the Mountaineers (7-1) were 6 for 20 (30 percent) from the floor and turned the ball over 11 times.
“Obviously, it was a tale of two halves,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
For a team heading into a long break for final exams, which start Thursday at the University, the victory was one to savor. The `Hoos don’t play again until Dec. 19, when No. 8 Villanova visits John Paul Jones Arena.
“Everybody will be able to get some rest,” junior guard London Perrantes said. “I’m rested, but I’ve still got some healing to do. It’s huge to be able to go off on a high note.”
Perrantes returned to the lineup Tuesday night after missing two games while recovering from a Nov. 27 appendectomy. Like the rest of his team, Perrantes struggled early against WVU’s full-court pressure, and he went into the break with two turnovers (and no shots).
“We were shaky at the start,” Bennett.
The Cavaliers’ fortunes changed for the better after the break, thanks in no small part to Perrantes’ play. In the second half, he hit 5 of 6 shots, including all three he attempted from beyond the 3-point arc.
With 13 points, Perrantes was one of four Cavaliers to score in double figures, along with 6-8 fifth-year senior Anthony Gill (season-high 20 points), 6-5 fifth-year senior Malcolm Brogdon (14) and 6-4 redshirt sophomore Darius Thompson (10).
Perrantes practiced only twice leading up to the Jimmy V Classic, and “it’s just different when you’re in games,” Bennett said.
“I thought he looked a little winded, a little rusty [in the first half], but he responded, and that was the beautiful thing.”
West Virginia leads the nation in steals and forced turnovers, and its pressure rattled the Cavaliers early. By halftime Tuesday, the `Hoos had a season-high 11 turnovers. They came in averaging only 7.4 per game.
“For the first 10 minutes, I think you’re trying to get acclimated to the pressure and trying to adjust and find ways to beat it,” Brogdon said.
The Mountaineers are “ball hawks,” Perrantes said. “Everybody’s on the ball. They play extremely fast. They gamble.”
Bennett said: “If you were shaky with the ball, they were going to poke it away or put you in a tough spots … They come at you in waves. It feels like there’s seven guys on the floor, the way they’re flying around and moving.”
Ballhandling wasn’t Virginia’s only issue during the first 20 minutes. West Virginia grabbed nine offensive rebounds in the first half and turned them into 11 points. For all their woes, however, the Cavaliers went into the break trailing by only six points.
“We were fortunate,” Bennett said. “I thought we clawed back a little bit at the end of the first half to make it manageable. But they had us. We weren’t cutting hard to get open. We weren’t finishing plays defensively. Just looked lethargic. That’s a credit to how hard they play, how physical they are.”
In assistant coach Brad Soderberg‘s office at JPJ is a famous quote from former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson: Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
“We absolutely got punched in the mouth,” Bennett said. Still, he didn’t give a fiery speech to his players at halftime.
“I just said, `Look, either you’re going to respond or you’re not, and you all know the deal,’ ” Bennett recalled at his postgame press conference. “We talked about rebounding. We talked about understanding who we were and tried to make some adjustments to help them, and I think they responded.”
Brogdon said: “We made the adjustments we needed to in the second half, and we outlasted them in the second half.”
Perrantes’ first trey came with 18:13 remaining and pulled Virginia to 36-33. His second capped a frantic sequence that started with a Perrantes turnover. But he stole the ball back when a Mountaineer tried an ill-advised behind-the-back pass, and that started a fast break. It ended when Brogdon passed to Perrantes for a 3-pointer that put the `Hoos up 42-40, their first lead since early in the game.
“I thought that was a back breaker,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said.
West Virginia’s defensive breakdowns mounted as the game progressed, and Virginia scored on 9 of its last 11 possessions. Moreover, the Mountaineers finished with 18 turnovers, one fewer than UVA.
“I don’t know if they wore down in the second half,” Bennett said, “but I don’t think you can press that hard and put all that energy into that and then in the halfcourt continue to play that hard. And I thought we got some easier buckets that were timely.”
Gill’s game-high 12 rebounds gave him his first double-double of the season and fourth of his career. His first-half production — 15 points and eight boards — helped keep the `Hoos within range of the Mountaineers.
“He had a terrific game,” Bennett said.
Among the spectators cheering Gill’s performance were former UVA players Assane Sene, Ryan Pettinella, Will Sherrill, Doug Browman and Atkins. Also in the crowd was Ty Jerome, a 6-5 guard from New York who last month signed a letter of intent with Virginia.
This was the Cavaliers’ second game at Madison Square Garden in three seasons, and this one ended on a happier note for them. In March 2014, in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, UVA fell 61-59 to Michigan State at the storied arena.
“It’s been a great experience playing at the Garden twice now,” Brogdon said. “You don’t ever forget these experiences.”
The experience, of course, would not have been so special for the `Hoos had they lost again in New York City. Instead, Virginia will carry a seven-game winning streak into its exam break.
“It feels like a big relief,” Perrantes said. “We worked extremely hard throughout the whole game, and just being able to make that turnaround was huge.”