Jan. 30, 2016
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It can be deafening inside the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center during University of Louisville men’s basketball games.
It can also be unnaturally quiet, as was evident Saturday afternoon. Of the 21,714 fans who packed the arena, virtually all came to support Louisville, but they had little to cheer about in this nationally televised ACC game.
Four days after its last-second win over Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, No. 11 Virginia never trailed in a resounding 63-47 victory over the 16th-ranked Cardinals.
The comeback at Wake, where UVA scored 18 points in the final 76 seconds, was “the luckiest thing I think I’ve ever been a part of,” senior center Mike Tobey said Saturday.
There was nothing lucky about the Wahoos’ rout of Louisville (17-4, 6-2).
“This one we really earned,” fifth-year senior forward Anthony Gill said. “There was no doubt that we left everything on the court. We really fought for it, and you gotta love it.”
For opposing teams, the atmosphere at the KFC Yum! Center can be as intimidating as that at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said Saturday. He spoke from experience.
The Cavaliers lost 59-57 in Louisville in 2014-15.
“Last year we played here and it was crazy, because the fans get into it when their team is playing well,” Brogdon said. “I thought we were able to keep them quiet for most of the game [Saturday], and I thought that gave us a huge edge.”
The loss was the most one-sided ever for the Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center, eclipsing the 15-point defeat that arch-rival Kentucky handed them on Dec. 31, 2010.
“You have to give Virginia a lot of credit,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “They played a great defensive game and executed beautifully on offense.”
UVA (17-4, 6-3) held the Cards scoreless for a 7:34 stretch of the first half and went into the break leading 29-14. The `Hoos rarely faltered in the second half. They led by 21 at the 14:00 mark, by 20 at the 7:00 mark, by 21 at the 4:00 mark, and by 22 with one minute remaining.
“It was our most complete game,” head coach Tony Bennett said after his team’s fourth straight victory.
“Louisville wasn’t at their best … but I’m not going to take anything away from the way our guys competed on both ends of the floor.”
Not since Feb. 22, 1995, when they defeated No. 24 Georgia Tech in Atlanta, had the Cavaliers beaten a ranked opponent by so many points on the road.
The Cardinals came in ranked second nationally in field-goal percentage defense and fifth in scoring defense, but UVA had no problems with their matchup zone. The `Hoos shot 57.8 percent from the floor, the highest by an opponent against Louisville since South Carolina (60 percent) in 2006.
Only two players scored in double figures for Virginia — Gill and Brogdon had 13 points apiece — but six others contributed at least four points each. That group included Tobey (nine points) and junior point guard London Perrantes (nine points), who also had a game-high five assists.
“Your guys have to be freed up to play [against the Cards],” Bennett said. “If you get stiff against that zone, they eat you up. Our guys did a good job … There was good spacing, good ball movement, and then the guys played and attacked.”
Most noteworthy Saturday, though, was Virginia’s performance on defense. The Cavaliers won the ACC regular-season title in 2013-14, and again in 2014-15, largely because of their defensive prowess.
For much of this season, however, they have struggled to stop opponents. UVA entered the Louisville game ranked 10th among ACC teams in field-goal percentage defense after allowing Wake to shoot 53.5 percent Tuesday night. A repeat of those breakdowns, the Cavaliers knew, would almost certainly result in a Louisville victory Saturday.
“You have to be right [defensively],” Bennett said, “or you know what happens to teams here.”
From the opening tip, the Cavaliers’ defensive intensity was palpable. Louisville turned the ball over six times in the first nine minutes and 18 times overall Saturday. For the game, the Cards shot only 32.7 percent from the floor, and they needed to make their final three field-goal attempts to reach that mark.
Louisville’s top two scorers, transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, came in averaging 17.2 and 12.7 points per game, respectively. Neither scored in the first half Saturday.
Lewis didn’t break through until 11:48 remained in the game. Lee didn’t score until the 9:51 mark.
“We understood that in order to get a road win in such a hostile environment like this, we had to play our defense,” Gill said, “and we really set the tone early. We went after it. It was something that we’ve been going after in practice every day, and we came out here today and showed it.”
Perrantes said: “It starts with me and Malcolm and A.G., just being able to start off the game strong. We wanted to make it a statement to come out and play hard defensively and let the rest follow. And I feel like when we start to do that, it’s easier for the team to come out and play with the same type of energy, and I feel like we did that very well tonight.”
For the Cavaliers, this was a storyline repeated often during the past two seasons: a defensive tour de force that led to an emphatic road victory.
Bennett brought up the program’s recent history when he addressed his players before the game.
“I said, `You can do this,’ ” Bennett told reporters at his press conference. “I said, `Now, will you? I don’t know. But you can, and you have in the past played a team like this in this kind of setting and performed and been right.’ ”
Many of the key players from the 2013-14 and 2014-15 teams are still in the program. Virginia’s rotation includes two fifth-year seniors (Gill and Brogdon), two seniors (Tobey and Evan Nolte), one junior (Perrantes) and two redshirt sophomores (Darius Thompson and Devon Hall). Their collective experience proved invaluable Saturday.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” Bennett said, “and last year, the environment [at the KFC Yum! Center] was incredible, just the noise and the intensity.
“We didn’t really let the crowd [Saturday] become a factor, and I think that was important. You could tell there were moments they wanted to explode, but for the most part we didn’t let them get to that.”
The Cardinals, meanwhile, “played like a bunch of inexperienced guys that did not know what they were in for,” Pitino said.
“At the end of the game two things really impressed me about [the Cavaliers]. They were up 20, and Brogdon was yelling in front of our bench to his teammates, ‘Just get one stop, guys, just get one stop.’ Then on a sideline out-of-bounds play, up 20, their hands immediately went up. Those are the little things that we are missing.”
Thanks in large part to that experience and poise, the `Hoos find themselves tied with Clemson for third place in the ACC.
For assistant coach Brad Soderberg, who joined Bennett’s staff last spring, this is a new experience, and he commented after practice Thursday on the players’ demeanor.
“I haven’t been around a group of guys that is so — I don’t know if even-keeled is the word, or just have no blood pressure at all,” Soderberg said. “They seem so relaxed, which is very good, but there’s also a time when I think we have to rev it up a little more.”
Another Virginia assistant, Jason Williford, feels the same way. Williford started at forward for the Cavaliers in the 1990s, and the teams on which he played were anything but laidback. And so when Williford boarded the bus outside the team hotel Saturday morning, he decided to change the mood.
Clapping his hands loudly, Williford looked at the players, who were seated in the back.
“Great day to be a Wahoo!” Williford shouted. Then he added, “If you’re not ready to play, don’t get on this bus.”
His message had the desired effect on the players.
“He got us excited,” Gill said. “He brought us back to the old days of UVA. We’re usually quiet on the bus, but it was good to have him up there talking.”
UP NEXT: After posting back-to-back road victories, Virginia is back at John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday night. At 7 o’clock, UVA (17-4, 6-3) hosts Boston College (7-14, 0-8), the only ACC team without a conference victory.
The Cavaliers have won two straight over the Eagles and four of the teams’ past five meetings. Virginia is 10-0 at JPJ this season.
A limited number of tickets are on sale for the Boston College game. Tickets can be purchased online by clicking here.