By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s a scene that’s been repeated recently at John Paul Jones after wins by the University of Virginia men’s basketball team: The opposing head coach walks into the press conference, sits down and then praises the Cavaliers.
On Dec. 19 that coach was Villanova’s Jay Wright. Three nights later it was California’s Cuonzo’s Martin, and Wednesday it was Oakland’s Greg Kampe.
Saturday night, after fifth-ranked UVA defeated Notre Dame 77-66 in the ACC opener for both teams, it was Mike Brey’s turn.
“They are really good,” Brey said of the Wahoos, who led by 18 with 3:25 left, “and today was kind of men among boys. I just thought any time we tried to make a little bit of a run and get some hope, they kind of squelched it like a very veteran, mature group.”
In stretching their winning streak to 11 games, the `Hoos (12-1 overall) shot 57.1 percent from the floor, to the delight of the sellout crowd at JPJ.
Anthony Gill scored on a post move with 14:25 left in the first half, putting the Cavaliers ahead to stay in what many expected to be a close game. The 6-8, 230-pound Gill finished with 21 points, six rebounds, one assist and one steal in 33 minutes. In 15 minutes off the bench, 7-0, 260-pound Mike Tobey added 15 points, six boards, two blocked shots, one assist and one steal.
“Tobey and Gill, they’re really good,” Brey said. “They’re just men. They’re men.”
He smiled before adding, “When do they graduate?”
Sadly for Virginia, Gill and Tobey will be out of eligibility at season’s end. Also in his final college season is All-America guard Malcolm Brogdon, who like Gill is a fifth-year senior.
Brogdon, 2 for 6 from the floor in the first half Saturday night, was 7 for 8 in the final 20 minutes and finished with a game-high 24 points. He was coming off a game in which he missed 11 of 14 shots from the floor, including all six he took from inside the arc.
“I purposely put the ball on the ground tonight and tried to get to the rim,” Brogdon said Saturday, “because I know teams are going to be stepping out on my [3-point shots] if I’m knocking it down. But at the same time, if it’s not falling, I don’t want to just become a 3-point shooter. I have to get back to what I do best, and that’s putting the ball on the ground and making plays.”
Even without a significant first-half contribution from Brogdon, Virginia went into the break ahead 36-24. The Irish (9-4, 0-1) opened the second half in a zone, a decision Brogdon quickly made them regret. On each of the Cavaliers’ first two second-half possessions, he buried a 3-pointer from the right wing.
“I think that got Malcolm going, at least from a shooting standpoint,” said UVA head coach Tony Bennett, who improved his record in ACC openers to 7-0.
“It was absolutely an efficient and well-played second half for Malcolm offensively.”
Brogdon’s defense, and that of his teammates, also pleased Bennett. The Irish shot 48.2 percent from the floor Saturday night, but Virginia made them earn their baskets. Notre Dame came in averaging 79.1 points per game.
Junior point guard Demetrius Jackson hit four treys — all in the second half — and finished with 18 points to lead the Irish. But the Cavaliers limited Notre Dame’s best big man, 6-10, 245-pound senior Zach Auguste, to one point and two rebounds.
Auguste came in averaging 14.3 points and 10.4 rebounds.
“I think [Notre Dame] missed some rhythm shots in the first half,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t just great defense, but at times I thought we locked down and our offense was good enough. It was a good combination,.
“We got a little complacent at the end. I thought we could have separated a little more, but I’m very thankful for the win.”
The Cavaliers, who are seeking their third straight ACC regular-season title, outscored the Irish 38-22 in the paint. On the perimeter, junior point guard London Perrantes did not have his best game a shooter — he was 1 for 5 — but he led the Cavaliers with five assists, and Devon Hall sparkled in 17 minutes off the bench.
Hall, a 6-5 redshirt sophomore who had struggled against Oakland, scored five points, tied his career high with four assists (two of which led to dunks) and, perhaps most important, had no turnovers Saturday. And then there was sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins, whom Bennett has tagged a “glue guy” and who excels at passing out of the high post.
In his fourth consecutive start, the 6-7 Wilkins contributed two points, two rebounds, two blocked shots and a career-best four assists.
“I think that’s hopefully become a strength of this team: different guys at different times,” Bennett said.
Wilkins said: “I feel like we have a lot of great weapons. If you try to keep on one guy, stop the post-up, it opens up a lot for other people. I just think it’s cool to have a team like that.”
That Tobey, who had 16 points and seven rebounds against Oakland, followed that performance with another gem is an especially encouraging development for the Cavaliers.
“We need his size and his length,” Bennett said. “I know you get discouraged at times, but he’s worked hard and it’s great to see what he’s doing and we’ll continue to need it for sure.”
Tobey said: “It feels good. The last two games we’ve had a size advantage inside, and I’ve just tried to use that to my advantage. Consistency’s been a thing throughout my career, so just being able to put two together is definitely a confidence-booster.”
Notre Dame, which is the defending ACC tournament champion, and Virginia will not meet again during the regular season. For that, Brey said, he’s thankful. He might have made that remark partly in jest, but his admiration for the Cavaliers clearly is genuine.
“They’re so secure with who they are, and they never waver,” Brey said. “Their game is tight on both ends. They’re the tightest in the league, and maybe in the country, on both ends on the floor at what they do.”
UP NEXT: The first of two straight road games for Virginia comes Monday night in Blacksburg. At 9 o’clock, in a game ESPN2 will televise, UVA (12-1, 1-0) meets Virginia Tech (9-5, 1-0) at Cassell Coliseum.
“I was happy with what I saw [against Notre Dame],” Bennett said, “and now we have to turn around and do it again in a hostile environment.”
The `Hoos have won seven straight over the Hokies and lead the series 88-53. Virginia has won five in a row in Blacksburg. The Cavaliers’ past two victories at Cassell Coliseum, however, have been by a combined seven points.
The Hokies opened ACC play Saturday with an overtime win over visiting NC State.
“Any time we go into Virginia Tech, it’s always a close game,” Gill said. “They always get up for us, and it seems to be a good game, no matter what. We just have to be ready for that from the beginning.”
Cassell is “a great place to play,” Brogdon said. “It’s a fierce competition and rivalry, and we’ll come ready to play.”