By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Seated on the visiting team’s bench at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, Devon Hall watched the shot leave Malcolm Brogdon’s hands. It was Feb. 2, 2014 — Super Bowl Sunday — and when Brogdon’s 3-pointer dropped through, giving Virginia a 48-45 lead with four-tenths of a second left, Hall started jumping up and down.
“I was going crazy,” recalled Hall, who redshirted that season.
Brogdon paused for a moment, unsure how to react, before raising his arms in triumph as his teammates surrounded him. That still ranks as the most memorable shot of his basketball career.
“It’s still an awesome moment,” Brogdon said Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
Two years after its dramatic last-second win over Pitt, Virginia returns to the 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center, where the raucous student section is known as the Oakland Zoo.
In a game the ACC Network will televise, the ninth-ranked Cavaliers (18-4, 7-3) meet Pitt (17-4, 6-3) at noon Saturday.
Virginia, with five straight wins, is the ACC’s hottest team. The Panthers haven’t played since Sunday, when they defeated Virginia Tech 90-71 at the Petersen Center. They’re 13-2 at home this season.
“Pitt will be juiced up,” UVA assistant coach Jason Williford said after practice Thursday night. “They’ve had a week to prepare for us. The Zoo will be crazy, so we’re going to hope that our defense travels. The defense has got to be the constant.”
For much of the season, the Wahoos’ defense has not met head coach Tony Bennett‘s high standards. His team’s recent play, though, has encouraged Bennett.
After winning 63-47 at then-No. 16 Louisville last weekend, Virginia handled Boston College 61-47 at JPJ on Wednesday night.
“I hope the last few games have been a turning point,” Bennett said. “As I said [after the Louisville game], I know we can. I know we have the formula. I know we have the personnel. We can do it. Do you know if you will do it? That’s always [the question], because this league is so good.
“But I feel that we’re playing better basketball and our kind of ball as we’re heading into the second half of ACC play.”
Defense, Brogdon said, is “the area where we’ve had to improve, and I think it’s improving slowly, and now we’re sort of seeing the fruit of our labor.”
Brogdon, a 6-5 guard, carried the Cavaliers offensively against BC. He made 7 of 10 shots from the floor, including all five of his 3-point attempts, and went 8 for 8 from the line. He finished with 27 points — one shy of his career high — and six rebounds in 30 minutes.
“He’s just a really smart basketball player, on both ends,” BC coach Jim Christian said. “He doesn’t get beat. He doesn’t give up any angles. He’s physical. He’s strong, and they’re so good schematically.”
Early in the game, Brogdon passed the 1,500-point mark for his career. The fifth-year senior from Atlanta now has 1,525, which ranks No. 18 all-time at Virginia, and he could pass Mike Scott (1,538) on Saturday.
During this winning streak, Brogdon has made 36 of 63 shots from the floor and averaged 21.8 points.
“He’s playing real good basketball, real efficient,” Bennett said. “He’s being assertive, but he’s letting it come, too, which I think has been big.”
Brogdon is pleased with his offensive production, “but that’s not really my focus,” he said. “I’m trying to win games. I’m trying to make sure we establish our identity now so we can make a run in March.”
Two weeks ago, Virginia was winless in ACC road games. Much has changed since then. The `Hoos prevailed at Wake Forest, where a last-second 3-pointer by redshirt sophomore Darius Thompson capped an improbable comeback, and at Louisville, where they never trailed.
“I think it’s just a matter of us getting back to what we were doing,” Hall said. “We hit maybe a little bit of a wall, and we were not playing the way we were capable of playing, being able to get stops and run our offense with urgency.”
With the win over Louisville, Brogdon said, “I think we did turn a corner. But I think it’s important for us to keep our foot on the gas and keep pushing forward.”
The Cardinals are “an excellent team, and they were at home,” Brogdon said. “We went in there and we established ourselves and sort of imposed our will. So I think that’s a huge lesson for us, to keep learning and building on.”
In his pregame talk with the team Wednesday night, Bennett told reporters after the game, “I said, `This staff is going to do everything we can to keep you on the path that you’re on. We’ve struggled. We’ve stumbled, and we’ve worked hard. But in this last week, we’ve gotten to the point that we need to be at. And it’s your job to stay on this path as players.’ ”
The team’s veterans include fifth-year seniors Brogdon and Anthony Gill and junior London Perrantes, a group in which Bennett has great confidence.
“They understand my message and that they need to be the voice when the coaches aren’t there,” Bennett said. “But it’s been hard to get to this point … We haven’t done it [with tricks]. We’ve been better defensively in the last few games, we’ve taken good shots, we’ve had a level of patience, we’ve rebounded better, and that’s the path we need to be on. And it’s been hard to get here, trust me. Hopefully, we can stay on it. That’s the challenge, and that’s what the players have to bring to it.”
Pitt, like Virginia, has an exceptionally experienced lineup. The Panthers’ rotation includes graduate students Sterling Smith and Rafael Maia, senior James Robinson and juniors Jamel Artis, Michael Young and Sheldon Jeter.
The 6-9 Young leads Pitt in scoring (17 ppg) and rebounds (6.8), and the 6-7 Artis averages 15.5 points. Jeter, a 6-8 transfer from Vanderbilt, scored a career-high 23 points against Virginia Tech. Robinson, a former UVA recruiting target, has started 109 consecutive games at point guard.
“He’s a very good floor general,” Williford said of Robinson, “and obviously brings that toughness and physicality that they like. He’s a heady player with a very good basketball IQ.”
Nothing came easily for the Cavaliers in their 2014 visit to Pitt. They expect a similar battle Saturday in one of the ACC’s most hostile environments.
“It’s crazy, for sure,” Brogdon said. “Loud. The fans seem [to be] right on the court, and Pitt is just a very tough team to play against.”