Feb. 9, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Tony Bennett addresses his basketball team before Tuesday night’s game at John Paul Jones Arena, the players will not receive a paint-peeling pep talk.

Their head coach will not rant. He will not rave. Yes, Virginia is playing arch-rival Virginia Tech, the same Hokies who upset the Cavaliers last month in Blacksburg. But Bennett, who’s in his seventh season at UVA, is characteristically even-keeled heading into the rematch.

“That’s something I’ve been very impressed with about him: He just approaches every game the same, whether it’s one of your supposed guarantee games or it’s the best team in your conference,” said assistant coach Brad Soderberg, who’s in his first season on his longtime friend’s staff at Virginia.

“And I think that’s good, because truth be told, the rah-rah speeches might work for about three minutes. And then you have to execute and play well [for 37 more minutes].”

At the start of practice Monday afternoon, Bennett sat his players down to deliver a brief message.

“He basically told us we can’t look too forward to this game,” fifth-year senior Anthony Gill said. “We still have to do what we do. We know it’s a rivalry game. We know there’s going to be a lot of emotion, a lot of energy in the building, but we have to stay poised and play the game possession by possession.”

The seventh-ranked Cavaliers (19-4, 8-3) host the Hokies (13-11, 5-6) in a game the ACC Network will televise. Virginia Tech is 11th in the league standings. The Wahoos are tied for second with Louisville and, with six straight wins, are the ACC’s hottest team.

“I think it’s probably the Virginia everybody [expected],” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said Monday. “I think they were just in a lull when we happened to catch them [in Blacksburg]. They’re one of the best teams in the country, playing incredibly well, particularly at home.”

Virginia has won 16 straight games at JPJ since losing to Duke there on Jan. 31, 2015. Equally important for the Cavaliers, they’re showing signs of becoming formidable on the road, too.

Two of UVA’s recent wins came at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center and Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center, which rank among the nation’s most hostile venues for opposing teams.

For the Cavaliers’ visit, Louisville’s fans wore white T-shirts and its players white uniforms, but the white-out did not produce the desired result for the home team. Virginia defeated the Cardinals 63-47 on Jan. 30.

The black-out Pitt promoted Saturday made for an impressive backdrop, but it did not deter the `Hoos either. The Cavaliers beat the Panthers 64-50.

In each case, Soderberg said, “it seemed to me that the opponents were too hyped. I thought Louisville and Pitt were so jacked up that they were missing shots they normally make, and we were just like, `Let’s play.’ I thought our guys were relaxed and played well.”

And so don’t expect a blue-out or orange-out or something similar at JPJ on Tuesday night.

“Coach Bennett doesn’t want anything like that,” Gill said. “He just wants us to go out there and play the game the way we play it.”

In their Jan. 4 game at Cassell Coliseum, the Cavaliers looked out of sync for most of the night, and they trailed by 11 points with two minutes to play. An improbable rally followed, and Virginia had the ball in the final seconds with a chance to force overtime — or take the lead on a 3-pointer. But a no-call on a drive by UVA point guard London Perrantes let the Hokies secure a 70-68 victory.

“They certainly played well,” Bennett said Monday. “Hopefully we’ll play better [in the rematch]. They had a lot to do with us not playing our best there.”

The loss ended Virginia’s seven-game winning streak in the series. Perrantes hit a career-high seven 3-pointers (on nine attempts) to keep the Hokies from turning the game into a rout, but the Cavaliers broke down repeatedly at the defensive end.

Virginia Tech shot 57.7 percent from the floor in the second half. For the game, the Hokies made 9 of 17 shots from beyond the 3-point arc.

Forward Zach LeDay, a transfer from South Florida, played an unexpected role in Tech’s barrage. For the season, the 6-7, 235-pound redshirt junior was 2 for 12 from 3-point range heading into the game at Cassell Coliseum. But LeDay made 3 of 4 from beyond the arc that night and scored a team-high 22 points.

He hasn’t cooled off much since then. In ACC games, LeDay is shooting 52 percent from 3-point range. He posted a double-double Saturday — 19 points and 12 rebounds — to help the Hokies end a five-game losing streak with a 60-57 win over Clemson at Cassell Coliseum.

“He is playing phenomenally well,” Soderberg said. “He’s a tough matchup, because when a kid shoots 52 percent from the 3-point line, you gotta go out and get him. And he’s also got a big enough body to ramrod you into the lane.

“I think he and Seth Allen are their two MVPs right now, and they’re both playing really well.”

LeDay leads the Hokies in scoring (16 ppg) and rebounding (8.3). Allen, a 6-1 transfer from Maryland, averages 14.4 points. Justin Bibbs, who leads the team with 53 treys, averages 12.2 points. The Hokies’ other weapons include guards Jalen Hudson, Justin Robinson and Devin Wilson and big man Kerry Blackshear Jr.

“Buzz has more plays than I think I’ve written down in a [scouting report] in 30 years,” Soderberg said. “I’ve gone through 10 sheets of legal-pad paper just writing down the different sets I’ve seen. That’s like a football offensive coordinator’s sheet. So it’s hard to prepare for them, because you’re not exactly sure what you’re going to see. But what we do know for sure is LeDay and Allen stir the drink, so we’ve got to keep those guys in check.”

Five games into its conference schedule, Virginia had a 2-3 record, with losses at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State. Opponents were scoring with ease against Bennett’s trademark Pack-Line defense, and a third straight ACC regular-season title seemed unlikely for the Cavaliers.

Since then, however, the `Hoos have steadily improved, especially on defense, and they now trail first-place North Carolina by only a half-game in the ACC standings.

“We’ve sort of turned a new leaf, and we’re just trying to build on our momentum,” said guard Malcolm Brogdon, who on Monday was named ACC player of the week for his performances against Boston College and Pitt.

Perrantes said the Cavaliers’ goal is simple: “Win the game that’s in front of us, and then when it comes down to the end of the regular season, we’ll look back and see how we did. I feel like we started off slow, but we’re picking it up. We want to get ready for March.”

Brogdon leads Virginia in scoring (17.9 ppg), and Perrantes (11.4) is third. Gill in second in scoring (14.2) and first in rebounding (6.1).

Against Pitt, Brogdon had 21 points and Perrantes added 14, but the 6-8 Gill had his least productive game of the season. After scoring at least 10 points in each of Virginia’s first 22 games, he had only four Saturday.

“It was tough,” Gill said, “but I was just trying to stay in the game for my teammates and trying to really help them on defense. I had a really good game defensively, and Coach Bennett sat me down and showed me all the great defensive possessions that I had.”

“There’s games like that. It happens, and you’ve just got to move on from it.”

He’ll look to return to form Tuesday night. Barring a postseason encounter, this will be the last game against Virginia Tech for Virginia’s seniors: Brogdon, Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte.

“It would be nice to go out with a bang,” Gill said, smiling, “so we’re going to try to.”

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