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Dec. 31, 2015

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By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, its second season starts Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena. The first ended Wednesday night and could not have gone much better for the fifth-ranked Cavaliers.

Yes, Virginia stumbled on Nov. 16, falling 73-68 to George Washington in front of a sellout crowd at the Smith Center in D.C. But there was no shame in that loss — GW is 11-2 — and UVA has run off 10 straight victories since that night in D.C.

Among the Wahoos’ victims: Ohio State, William & Mary, West Virginia, Villanova, California and, now, an Oakland team that took No. 1 Michigan State to overtime last week.

Virginia closed non-conference play Wednesday night with a 71-58 victory over the Golden Grizzlies before a near-capacity crowd at JPJ that included new football coach Bronco Mendenhall and his family.

“It was a challenging schedule, and it was for a reason,” associate head coach Ron Sanchez said. “We feel that because of the schedule that was set, we’ve learned a lot about our team this non-conference. We’ve adjusted to certain things. Individuals have been challenged, and because of those, I think we’ll be better prepared to start ACC play.”

UVA (11-1), seeking its third straight ACC regular-season title, opens conference play Saturday at 5 p.m. against Notre Dame (9-3) at JPJ. ESPN2 will televise the game, which is sold out.

Sanchez filled in at the press conference Wednesday night for head coach Tony Bennett, who did not feel well after the final buzzer. But Bennett no doubt was proud of how his team handled the most challenging non-conference schedule of his seven seasons in Charlottesville, a stretch of games the players believe will pay dividends in 2016.

“We’ve been saying from the jump that it was going to help us,” junior point guard London Perrantes said. “We’ve had some tough games compared to the last two years that I’ve been here, and we want to play in those games. I feel like if you don’t want to play in those games, then you shouldn’t be at this level.

“I feel like we all stepped up. At different times, there’s always been somebody else stepping up for us, and it shows that we can do different things at different times and we can play with the best of them. We won some close games and we won some big games, and I think that will definitely help us down the road.”

Sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins agreed.

“I think Coach Bennett did a great job scheduling these teams,” Wilkins said. “We needed that loss at GW, I feel, because I feel like it made us realize that we needed to work on a lot of things.”

As Perrantes noted, every Cavalier has distinguished himself at one time or another this season. Against Oakland (8-5), center Mike Tobey turned in his best performance in more than a month. The 7-0 senior came off the bench to hit 7 of 8 shots from the floor and finished with 16 points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes.

“He hurt us,” Oakland head coach Greg Kampe said. “He hurt us badly.”

The Golden Grizzlies, Kampe said, came in hoping to force Tobey away from the basket.

“We didn’t accomplish that, did we?” Kampe said with a wry smile.

Tobey, who began the season as a starter, had not scored in double figures since Nov. 22, when his 14 points helped Virginia defeat George Mason in the championship game of the Charleston (S.C.) Classic. Against Oakland, he flashed the offensive skills that have been evident since he arrived at UVA in June 2012.

“We need Tobey, and he knows that,” teammate Anthony Gill said. “I’m so happy for him, and that’s what we need for the rest of the season from him.”

Early foul trouble has hurt Tobey in recent games, limiting his minutes, but Wednesday night he was called for only one personal. His assertive play delighted Virginia fans, especially the alley-pass from redshirt sophomore guard Darius Thompson that Tobey slammed home midway through the first half.

“It was nice to see him have this type of game,” Sanchez said.

Tobey said: “I’m not going to lie, it felt pretty good. My teammates have been real supportive, just helping me get through the hump of not playing as well as I would like to play. It felt good to get a good win tonight.”

On a night when All-America guard Malcolm Brogdon missed 11 of 14 shots, including all six he took inside the 3-point arc, big men Gill, Tobey and Wilkins carried the Cavaliers.

The 6-8 Gill, a fifth-year senior, contributed 17 points and five rebounds. The 6-7 Wilkins, in his third straight start, scored only four points, but he chipped in eight rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals.

“We wanted to take advantage of our size on the interior,” Sanchez said.

Perrantes started slowly against an opponent led by an extraordinary point guard, 5-9 junior Kay Felder, who came in ranked first in the nation in assists and third in scoring. Perrantes picked up two fouls in a nine-second span and watched the final 14:07 of the first half from the bench.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Cavaliers went into the break trailing 29-28. Still, nobody in the home locker room panicked.

“Basketball’s 40 minutes,” Sanchez said. “We’re not a knockout team. We’re going to have to learn from our first halves and hopefully make the right adjustments for the second half and play selfless basketball and take care of the ball.”

With Perrantes back on the floor, the `Hoos took control after intermission. He hit two 3-pointers in the first 4:35 of the second half, the second of which pushed Virginia’s lead to 41-31. With 3:20 remaining, the Cavaliers led by 22.

In his past four games, Perrantes is 10 for 14 from 3-point range. He wasn’t the only sharpshooter at JPJ on Wednesday night. Felder made 4 of 9 shots from beyond the arc and finished with a game-high 30 points.

Felder left with 98 seconds remaining to a warm ovation from the Cavaliers’ fans.

“He’s amazing,” Gill said.

Felder’s teammates were less effective. All five Oakland starters came in averaging at least 10.1 points, but Felder was the only one to score in double figures against UVA. He finished with three assists, six fewer than his average.

“In the first half I think we were kind of half-speed in getting back and contesting 3-point shots, and they hit a couple,” Sanchez said. “I think the second half we did a much, much better job of taking advantage of the interior play and getting back in transition D.”

The Golden Grizzlies, who prefer to play at a breakneck pace, came in averaging 88.4 points, but Kampe, for practical purposes, adopted a different strategy Wednesday night.

“That coach is so good, and the program is so good, nobody’s going to come in here and run up and down the floor on them,” Kampe said.

After hosting Notre Dame this weekend, Virginia will play two straight road games, the first at Virginia Tech and the second at Georgia Tech. UVA returns home to face Miami at JPJ on Jan. 12. A limited number of single-game tickets for the Hurricanes’ visit will go on sale Monday at 5 p.m.

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