By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Since the calendar turned to 2014 two years ago, the University of Virginia has lost exactly one men’s basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena: to Duke last January.
Virginia’s home-court advantage was evident again Tuesday night. Against eighth-ranked Miami, the Cavaliers drew strength from the crowd of 13,495, whose vocal support helped propel them to a 66-58 victory.
“I thought tonight, being at home, they were maybe a little more comfortable and confident, playing in front of the hometown fans,” said Miami head coach Jim Larranaga, a former UVA assistant. “It helped them.”
For a Virginia team coming off back-to-back road losses — to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech — JPJ has never looked so good. The victory improved the Wahoos’ home record this season to 8-0. The 13th-ranked `Hoos are 13-3 overall and 2-2 in in ACC play.
“The crowd gives us so much energy,” junior point guard London Perrantes said. “Playing here is a difference-maker in itself, just because of the crowd.”
After Miami (13-2, 2-1) scored four straight points to close to 59-56, Perrantes dropped in a difficult floater to push Virginia’s lead back to five. The Cavaliers then made 5 of 6 from the line in the final minute to end the Hurricanes’ eight-game winning streak.
“It felt really good when the horn went off,” said forward Anthony Gill, who scored 15 points, grabbed a game-high eight rebounds and tied his career high with three assists.
The Cavaliers’ fans left JPJ happy, and the players were in high spirits in the home locker room when head coach Tony Bennett walked in. He wasn’t nearly as pleased. His message to the players?
“Basically, your defense was not as good as you think it was,” Gill said. “We have a lot of work to do. We understand that. We were just excited that we ended up pulling it out.”
At his postgame press conference, Bennett said, “I’m very thankful for the win, please don’t mistake that, because I know we needed it, but I know what’s looking us in the eye, and I’m realistic.”
The `Canes entered the game averaging 82.8 points and shooting 49.7 percent from the floor. Miami made only 42 percent of its field-goal attempts Tuesday night. Still, Bennett saw far too many defensive breakdowns from his players, especially in the second half.
“We took a step in the right direction in terms of our physicality and our mindset and our patience,” Bennett said, “but we’ve got a lot of work to do. We got a ways to go, and we’ll just keep grinding away. That’s how we gotta do it. [Miami guard Angel] Rodriguez is as quick as they come. He got to the lane at will on us. We had no answer, and we’ve got to be better than that.”
Rodriguez led Miami with 17 points, and another fifth-year senior guard, Sheldon McClellan, added 13 points.
For Virginia, four players scored in double figures: guard Malcolm Brogdon (20 points), Gill (15), Perrantes (13) and center Mike Tobey (12). The Cavaliers shot 51.1 percent from the floor against Miami, and for the season they’re at 49.8 percent.
Even so, Brogdon said, “I think our identity still lies in our defense. I think down the stretch it’s going to be our defense that wins games, that allows us to be successful night in and night out. Some days, unfortunately, our defense isn’t there as much as we need it to be, and our offense steps up, like tonight. I thought we were able to get big shots from everybody.”
On average, Virginia has outrebounded its opponents by more than five per game this season. Georgia Tech, however, dominated the backboards in Atlanta, and rebounding was a point of emphasis for the `Hoos leading up to the Miami game.
Gill had a season-low two boards against the Yellow Jackets.
“I knew I wasn’t doing what I needed to do, and they were getting way too many offensive rebounds on me,” Gill recalled. “I really wanted to make it a key tonight to go out there and rebound, and that’s what I did.”
The game’s first possession ended with a Gill offensive rebound and stickback.
“We needed him to get on the glass and rebound well, and he answered that challenge,” Bennett said.
The 7-0 Tobey pulled down seven rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench, and Perrantes, who at 6-2 is UVA’s shortest starter, finished with four boards. Overall, the `Hoos outrebounded the `Canes 35-27.
“You won’t win at a high level if you can’t rebound the basketball,” Bennett said, “and I think as you get into ACC play, it’s so much more fierce at the rim, the rebounding, offensive and defensive, the plays up there. And if you’re going to be a high-level team, you’ve got to do that.
“The finesse game doesn’t work when you get into conference play. It’s a physical game. It’s a blue-collar game.”
Miami opened the second half with seven unanswered points to take a 30-27 lead. In all, there were 14 lead changes Tuesday night, the last coming on a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer by Perrantes that put Virginia on top 44-43 with 11:15 to play.
Perrantes, who’s from Los Angeles, scored a career-high 26 points last season in Virginia’s double-overtime victory over Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. He bedeviled the `Canes again Tuesday night, especially in the second half.
“I don’t know what it is about playing well against them,” Perrantes said, smiling. “I think they bring some sand and some water that I miss from L.A.”
His third and final field goal came when Perrantes drove into the lane from the left corner and put up a floater, almost a running hook shot, against 6-6 Davon Reed. It dropped through with 1:04 left, allowing the Cavaliers to exhale.
“I knew the shot clock was going down, and I just got into the paint, and I couldn’t get fully to the rim,” Perrantes said, “but I knew I had to get a shot off, and it was the only one I could get off.
“Malcolm’s a pro at the floaters, and we worked on that in the offseason. I don’t use it much, but it’s there.”
Brogdon made some memorable shots himself Tuesday night, including a one-handed dunk on which he was fouled, and he helped steady the Cavaliers whenever the Hurricanes mounted a threat.
On a team loaded with other veterans, Perrantes, Tobey and senior forward Evan Nolte among them, Brogdon and Gill stand out as fifth-year seniors, and Bennett expects much from them.
“It’s definitely a great responsibility,” Brogdon said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a burden. I think it’s a blessing. It’s what me and Anthony are built for: to carry a load, to be leaders. I think we’ve been able to stay positive. I think positivity is the key for us bouncing back from losses, especially two in a row. Most of us on this team haven’t experienced that in years. So we just stayed positive. We kept talking to each other, kept encouraging each other during practices. There was never a lack of energy or [any] negativity in practice. And we just came out with a lot of energy in this game.”
Gill said: “A lot of people have been saying, `Oh, no, Virginia basketball is going downhill,’ and stuff like that, but all we can do is worry about ourselves. We understand that there are ups and downs in this game, and that we just have to go out there and keep knocking, so that is what we did.”
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers, who played in Blacksburg and Atlanta last week, are on the road again this weekend. At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, in a game ESPNU will televise, Virginia meets Florida State at the Donald L. Tucker Center in Tallahassee.
FSU (10-5, 0-3) plays Wednesday at 9 p.m. at NC State (10-6, 0-3).
The Cavaliers have won five straight over the Seminoles, a streak that began with a victory in Tallahassee on Jan. 4, 2014.
FSU is far and away the ACC’s tallest team. The `Noles have three players listed at 7-1 or taller, including 7-4 freshman Chris Koumadje.
After the trip to Tallahassee, Virginia returns home to host Clemson at JPJ. That game is set for Tuesday at 8 p.m.