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Jan. 26, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the 24th day of the new year, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team reached a milestone of sorts. For the first time in 2016 (and only fifth time all season), the Cavaliers held an opponent to less than 40-percent accuracy from the field.

In 2014-15, such a feat was commonplace. UVA ended the season ranked third nationally in field-goal percentage defense (36.7). In 2013-14, the Cavaliers ranked ninth in that category.

Not coincidentally, Virginia won the ACC regular-season title in each of those years.

“The defense was always there,” assistant coach Jason Williford said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.

This season has been a different story. Heading into its Tuesday night game at Wake Forest (10-9, 1-6), No. 11 Virginia (15-4, 4-3) ranks second among ACC teams in scoring defense (61.4 ppg) but only 10th in field-goal percentage defense (42.6).

In its Sunday night victory over Syracuse, though, UVA showed signs of progress. The Cavaliers were far from perfect at the defensive end — Syracuse sank 13 of 30 shots from 3-point range — but they made enough stops to come away with a 73-65 win at JPJ. The victory was the second straight for Virginia, which defeated Clemson 69-62 at JPJ last Tuesday.

“I thought we took a step closer — in the Clemson game and this game — to making it harder for people to at least get rhythm shots,” head coach Tony Bennett said.

Overall, Syracuse shot 38.9 percent from the floor against Virginia’s Pack-Line defense.

“We’re getting there,” fifth-year senior Anthony Gill said Sunday night. “We’re taking steps every game. It’s something that we’re really working on and really putting in the forefront, because we understand UVA basketball, Coach Bennett’s system, is built upon our defense, and when we have little lapses like we did tonight, where we let guys shoot 3s over top of us, we’ve got to have better ball pressure.”

Williford saw positive signs against the Orange, too.

“We played with a little more urgency defensively, understanding every possession counts,” he said. “That urgency starts with transition defense, starts with being able to keep guys in front of us and contesting shots, and then [not giving up offensive rebounds].

“I think we got back to a little bit of that, and hopefully that travels.”

Since the calendar flipped to 2014, the `Hoos have lost only once at JPJ — to Duke last January — and they’re 10-0 at home this season. Away from Charlottesville, though, it’s been a trying year for Virginia.

“It’s testing our resolve,” Williford said. “I think the talent level across the league has gotten better, teams have gotten better, and [opponents] are wanting to beat a good Virginia team now. That comes with the territory.”

Of the top 10 teams in the ACC standings, UVA is the only one without a conference road victory. The Cavaliers, who play Saturday afternoon at No. 16 Louisville, have lost at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and, most recently, Florida State.

“I think we’ve just got to come out with the energy that we need to be able to win the games,” said Gill, a 6-8 forward who had 16 points and eight rebounds against Syracuse. “We don’t really come out the same way we come out at home games, and that’s been a problem for us all year, especially during the ACC play. We just have to come out and be ready to attack the game from the beginning, because if not, we’re going to get down and we’re going to have to fight our way back, and that’s not been something we’ve been good at this year.”

For the `Hoos to change their fortunes away from JPJ, Williford said, their defense must improve.

“There are nights, especially on the road, when you can’t throw it in the ocean,” said Williford, a former UVA player. “So when you’re not shooting it well, you’re able to still get stops.

“We’re trying to tighten up some stuff defensively, but I think collectively it’s more of a mindset, that it starts with our defense.”

Williford smiled. “I’m going to make a football reference — you know I’m a big football guy. But you see the two teams in the Super Bowl: two of the best defensive teams in all of football. And that’s what you gotta have, ultimately, to make it to the highest level.”

The `Hoos have built an enormous home-court advantage, an accomplishment in which they take great pride. The challenge for them is to replicate that success in opponents’ arenas.

“This is what we want to protect at all times,” junior point guard London Perrantes said Sunday night at JPJ, “and I feel like our crowd is huge for us. And now we’ve just got to find a way to get back on track on the road and find that energy to do that on the road.”

In 2014-15, Virginia went 2-0 against Wake Forest, winning 61-60 at JPJ and, 11 days later, 70-34 at Joel Coliseum.

That Wake team finished 5-13 in ACC play and 13-19 overall. In Danny Manning’s second season as the Demon Deacons’ head coach, he again has one of the ACC’s best big men in senior Devin Thomas (16.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg), but there’s a new name at point guard: Bryant Crawford.

A 6-3 freshman from the D.C. area, Crawford averages 12.7 points and leads Wake in assists and steals. He’s shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range.

“I think Crawford at the point makes them different,” Williford said. “He’s just a confident point guard.”

The Deacons have dropped four straight games since winning at home against NC State on Jan. 10. Three of those losses were on the road.

“They’re going to be a desperate team,” Williford said. “They’ve been on the road quite a bit, and they’re back home. They’re 1-6 in the league, and they’re going to want to knock us off.”

Virginia has something to prove Tuesday night, too.

“We’re still trying to get on the right path,” Perrantes said. “We’ve got to do all we can to get on the right path going into March and going into the ACC tournament, and these are the games where we need to find our way.”

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