By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PITTSBURGH — With less than a minute left in a game whose outcome had been decided, a juncture when many players might look to pad their scoring totals, the basketball moved crisply from Anthony Gill to Isaiah Wilkins to Devon Hall to, finally, London Perrantes, who buried a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired.
That play was no anomaly Saturday for ninth-ranked Virginia. In stretching its winning streak to six games with a 64-50 victory over Pittsburgh, the ACC’s hottest team totaled 17 assists on its 24 field goals. Wilkins, a 6-7 sophomore, led the Cavaliers (19-4, 8-3) with a career-high five assists.
“The ball movement was phenomenal,” Hall said.
“We weren’t forcing anything,” Perrantes said. “I feel like at the end of the day we’re not worried about our individual stats, and that’s what makes us lethal. When everybody’s hitting shots and [defenders are] all running around, it’s hard for the defense, and we just want to keep that going. We trust everybody on the team. We all can make plays, and when we do that, we’re pretty good.”
The Cavaliers’ head coach, Tony Bennett, is hard to please. But Bennett liked what he saw Saturday at one of the ACC’s toughest venues for opponents, and not only because Virginia held Pitt (17-5, 6-4) to 39.1-percent accuracy from the floor.
“I think it’s fun to watch when you share the ball and guys move it and they make the next pass and guys are hitting [shots],” Bennett said.
The proceedings, of course, were not nearly as enjoyable for the home team or the Pitt fans who packed the 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center, where the student section is called the Oakland Zoo. Pitt led only once — at 13-12 — as the Wahoos produced another dominant performance on the road.
“The crowd, you could tell they wanted to get into it, and they did at stretches, but for the most part we kept them at bay,” said Bennett, whose father, Dick, grew up in nearby McKees Rocks.
A week after winning 63-47 at then-No. 16 Louisville, Virginia made 9 of 16 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. At the other end, UVA held Pitt’s leading scorer, 6-9 Michael Young, to 12 points, five under his average.
“I thought we just did a good job of not giving him easy looks,” Bennett said. “We said, `If he can hit contested shots while you’re spread out and he’s rising up, we’ll live with that. But let’s try not to let him get by us in the lane.’ … When you go against a player that’s playing as well as he is, you have to try to at times get the ball out of his hands or make him see a crowd, and for the most part we did that.”
Pitt’s starting guards, meanwhile, were a combined 1 for 10 from the floor (and 0 for 5 from beyond the arc). James Robinson, in his 110th consecutive start, did not score, and Sterling Smith had two points.
“When we’re playing our defensive system well, we’re trying to take away the lane but make them shoot the contested shots,” Bennett said. “I thought that even when they tried to break us down, we were real good in our [defensive positioning]. They couldn’t quite get there, and we were able to get to shooters and at least make them contested.
“We were nervous about that, but we said, `First things first: Take care of the paint and then we’ll bother the shots.’ ”
After the Panthers pulled even at 31-31 early in the second half, the `Hoos answered with 12 straight points. The first nine came on 3-pointers by Brogdon, Hall and Perrantes, the rest on a three-point play by Hall with 15:52 remaining.
“I thought we moved the ball well on the offensive end [during that stretch],” Brogdon said. “We’d been knocking down shots the whole game. We continued to do that, and then we started to get stops, and once we started to get stops, the lead started growing.”
Brogdon, whose last-second 3-pointer lifted Virginia to victory in its 2014 visit to Pitt, made his first five shots from the floor Saturday. The most memorable was a driving one-handed dunk that would have made Connie Hawkins, who once played for the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers, proud. After his slam, the normally stoic Brogdon flexed his muscles for a moment as he ran back on defense.
“I was into it today,” Brogdon said, smiling.
Brogdon has scored at least 20 points five times during Virginia’s winning streak, and he’s hit 58.3 percent of his field-goal attempts in that six-game stretch. He was 5 for 6 in the first half Saturday and went into the break with 14 points.
“He got us off to a great start on the road,” Bennett said, “and that was important.”
Saturday marked the first time this season that Gill, a 6-8 fifth-year senior, did not score in double figures for Virginia, but his production wasn’t needed in this game between ACC heavyweights.
Brogdon, ruthlessly efficient once again, hit 6 of 9 shots from the floor, including 3 of 5 from beyond the arc, and 6 of 6 from the line to finish with a game-high 21 points. Perrantes, who made four treys, added 14 points, and reserves Marial Shayok, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte combined for 15 points.
The 6-5 Shayok (eight points) made 4 of 6 shots floor the floor and also had four rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal.
“I thought our bench was terrific, and that was important for us,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t just Malcolm, though he had a heck of a game. You could see the other guys contributing, and you can feel that on the bench. You can tell there’s a positive vibe that way. They know they gotta be ready, and they were.”
For a two-week stretch last month, the Cavaliers looked nothing like the Virginia teams that won ACC regular-season titles in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Opponents scored with shocking ease as UVA dropped games at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State.
“Since then we’ve come a long way,” Brogdon said. “It’s belief and confidence. We believe in each other, we believe in ourselves, and we’re just trying to build on that.”
Perrantes said: “We’re finding our way. We’re getting back to where we’ve been the last two years.”
Since their Jan. 17 loss to Florida State, the `Hoos have risen steadily in the ACC standings and now trail only Louisville and North Carolina. Four of the Cavaliers’ final seven regular-season games are at John Paul Jones Arena, where they’re 11-0 this season.
“We still can take some more steps in the right direction, and I feel like we have been every single game,” Perrantes said. “It’s huge for our confidence, and Coach Bennett is very happy with us right now. We want to keep it that way. We want to keep getting better.”
Virginia had won seven consecutive games over Virginia Tech before stumbling in Blacksburg on Jan. 4. The `Hoos, who trailed by 11 points with two minutes to play, had the ball in the final seconds with a chance to force overtime — or take the lead on a trey — but the Hokies escaped with a 70-68 victory.
“We weren’t in rhythm, we didn’t play well together, we didn’t get stops, and those are three things we can really improve,” Brogdon said.
The rematch is Tuesday at 8 p.m. at JPJ, and a limited number of tickets are available for the game. Virginia Tech (13-11, 5-6) ended a five-game losing streak Saturday with a win over Clemson at Cassell Coliseum.