By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Its first game at the KFC Yum! Center ended on an excruciating note for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, which surrendered the lead with 2.7 seconds left and lost 59-57.
The clash between Virginia and ACC newcomer Louisville last March packed an arena that seats 22,090, and the fans made their presence known.
“Loud. Really loud,” Virginia point guard London Perrantes said Friday when asked about the atmosphere in Louisville. “Very big. Nice arena.
“Their fans really help them a lot. You can tell. [The Cardinals] may be tired, but the fans will keep going, and I feel like the players will keep going as well.”
That sounds very much like the home-court advantage the Cavaliers enjoy at John Paul Jones Arena, where they’re 10-0 this season. On the road, though, the Wahoos have been less successful, and so their task Saturday looks especially challenging.
At 1 p.m., in a game CBS will televise, No. 11 UVA (16-4, 5-3) meets No. 16 Louisville (17-3, 6-1) at the KFC Yum! Center.
The `Hoos needed a miraculous comeback Tuesday night against Wake Forest to collect their first ACC road victory, and they know they can’t count on such feats when they’re away from JPJ.
Virginia scored 18 points in the last 1:16 — the final three coming on an off-balance shot by redshirt sophomore guard Darius Thompson as time expired — to pull out a 72-71 win in Winston-Salem, N.C. Wake missed seven free throws in the final 65 seconds.
“We were very fortunate,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said afterward at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
Perrantes agreed. “That was a gift,” he said. “We know we can’t do that again, and hopefully we learned from it. I’m hoping that gave us a boost. It wasn’t really a confidence-builder, I guess, but it was something where we said, `All right, we made it out alive, so let’s try to build on it from there.’ ”
The Cavaliers struggled defensively against Wake, which shot 53.5 percent from the floor, but that wasn’t their only problem, assistant coach Brad Soderberg said.
“I think one of the things that made it hard to get off to a good start is we missed some really good shots in the first five minutes,” Soderberg said. “We had some wide-open looks that didn’t fall, and that doesn’t let you set your defense properly. When you make a bucket, it’s obvious, but [the opponent has] to take the ball out of bounds, and that takes an extra three or four seconds, and we get back on defense.
“I also think that our transition defense was bad in the first 10 minutes and [Wake] got some easy looks, and then we just had to fight our way back the rest of the way.”
That’s not usually a formula for success on the road, of course, “but to the credit of the players, I never once thought that they gave up, and we were in a position to fold up our tents there a couple of times,” Soderberg said.
“Hopefully we’ll realize that we got a gift handed to us and we can be really thankful that it happened and understand that we can’t afford to have a start at Louisville like we had at Wake Forest.”
The Cardinals, who defeated the Demon Deacons 65-57 at the KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 3, have won four straight since losing at Clemson. Among ACC teams, only first-place North Carolina, which has won seven games in a row, is hotter.
This is not the same Louisville team with which UVA split its two meetings in 2014-15. The Cards’ top two scorers this season — 6-6 Damion Lee (17.2 ppg) and 6-2 Trey Lewis (12.7 ppg) — are graduate students who starred at Drexel and Cleveland State last season, respectively.
Junior big man Mangok Mathiang, who hit the game-winning shot against the `Hoos last season, has been sidelined since late December with a broken foot, but his absence hasn’t slowed Louisville. Chinanu Onuaku, a 6-10, 245-pound sophomore from Lanham, Md., has posted double-doubles in six of the Cards’ past seven games.
Onuaku is averaging two blocked shots per game, which ranks third among ACC players.
“He’s really a load,” Soderberg said. “It’s going to be extremely difficult to get buckets and then, once you do, you’ve got to find a way to stop them, which is another challenge.”
The Cards lead the nation in scoring margin (plus-20.9). They rank second nationally in field-goal percentage defense, fifth in scoring defense, sixth in rebound margin and eighth in offensive rebounds.
Among ACC teams, Virginia ranks first among ACC teams in field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Still, nothing is likely to come easily for the Cavaliers on Saturday.
“I think this will be best defensive team we’ve seen this year,” Soderberg said, “and that’s saying a lot, because we’ve seen some teams that have been really good, and not just in conference play, but non-conference as well.
“Louisville is just playing exceptionally well. And what’s kind of surprising is, they only have two seniors and no juniors [in their rotation]. So for them to be playing at such a high level with such a young squad is really impressive.”
The Cardinals are in their 15th season under Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. His teams traditionally have liked to run and press, and his latest is no exception. Virginia’s players worked extensively against full-court pressure in practice this week.
In the Cavaliers’ victory over Louisville at JPJ last season, they turned the ball over only two times. A month later, in the rematch, Virginia had 13 turnovers, including four by Perrantes and three by Malcolm Brogdon.
It will be crucial Saturday for UVA “to take care of the ball, but also be aggressive,” Perrantes said. “We don’t want to be just passing it around. I feel like that’s when we turn the ball over the most, when we’re passive. It’s better to make aggressive mistakes.”
Perrantes, as the Cavaliers’ point guard, will be in the spotlight Saturday, and that’s fine with him. He likes the challenge of trying to beat Louisville’s full-court pressure.
“You know you have to take care of the ball for your team to succeed,” Perrantes said. “The ball’s going to be in your hands a lot, but I feel like it always is.
“It’ll be fun. We lost last year on a tough buzzer-beater, so it’ll be good to try to come back and redeem ourselves. It’s just a good test for us.”