Feb. 10, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For University of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett, it was in many ways a game like any other, and his approach didn’t change. But not everyone at John Paul Jones Arena looked at Virginia Tech’s visit that way.

After Virginia’s 67-49 victory over its biggest rival Tuesday night, Anthony Gill stopped by the JPJ weight room, the province of strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis.

“We were just in there lifting with Coach Curtis, and he had a little smile on his face, bigger than he normally does after a game,” Gill said. “And you definitely know J-Willy had a big smile on his face.”

Curtis and Jason Williford, one of Bennett’s assistant coaches, are former UVA players for whom their alma mater’s games with Virginia Tech hold special meaning. They were frustrated and disappointed Jan. 4 in Blacksburg, where the Hokies upset the Cavaliers 70-68, but the proceedings Tuesday night went much more to their liking.

In stretching its winning streak to seven games, UVA never trailed Tuesday night before a crowd of 14,395. Seventh-ranked Virginia led by 12 at the break and pulled away for a 67-49 victory.

The loss at Cassell Coliseum last month ended an 11-game winning streak for the Wahoos, and more setbacks followed. Virginia lost at Georgia Tech on Jan. 9 and, after beating ACC rival Miami at JPJ on Jan. 12, fell at Florida State on Jan. 17.

“I think that whole span of games … really got under each and every one of our skins, and we all understood that that’s not the way we play UVA basketball,” Gill said Tuesday night. “Of course this one means a little bit more, because it is a rivalry game in-state. Everybody loves to beat Virginia Tech. It was just something that we all knew: We were a better team tonight than when we first played Virginia Tech, and we wanted to go out there and prove it.”

In the rematch, Virginia guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes, who average 17.7 and 11.1 points, respectively, struggled at the offensive end, missing 11 of 16 shots from the floor. But the Cavaliers (20-4, 9-3) had plenty of other options Tuesday night as they won for the 10th time in their past 12 meetings with the Hokies.

Virginia’s frontcourt dominated. Gill, a 6-8 fifth-year senior, scored 16 points, and Isaiah Wilkins, a 6-7 sophomore, added a career-high 14 points. Mike Tobey threw down a fast-break dunk that brought the crowd to its feet — the 7-0 senior finished with 10 points in 11 minutes off the bench — and Evan Nolte, a 6-8 senior, chipped in four points on 2-for-3 shooting.

“I think there is more productivity from top to bottom [in the Cavaliers’ lineup] than when we played them last month,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said.

In UVA’s win at Pittsburgh on Saturday, sophomore swingman Marial Shayok scored eight points off the bench. Shayok was quiet Tuesday night, but other Cavaliers stepped forward to reduce the burden Brogdon, Gill and Perrantes carry offensively.

Wilkins’ previous career high was 10 points, and he often looks more eager to pass than to shoot. But his midrange jump shot has become a reliable weapon, and he put it to good use Tuesday night.

“Everyone has been preaching to me to be aggressive,” Wilkins said, “because it can’t just be A.G., London and Malcolm.”

Bennett said: “When another guy gives us that output offensively, that really balances our team and makes us more potent on offense and harder to guard.”

Virginia Tech often employs a lineup that includes four perimeter players. UVA’s big men knew they would have opportunities to score inside Tuesday night, Gill said, “and it’s just up to us to capitalize on the opportunities. Both Isaiah and Mike did a great job tonight of really giving us a lift when we needed it. Isaiah did a great job of offensive rebounding and getting us second-chance points, and that really helps us out a lot … Just having two other guys down there that can really take a lot of focus off myself helps me.”

Despite making only 2 of 10 attempts from beyond the arc, UVA shot 49 percent from the floor Tuesady night. Only once in the Cavaliers’ past seven games have they not hit at least 48 percent of their field-goal attempts, and their offensive efficiency has contributed to their surge.

The biggest factor, however, has been their improved defense.

In Blacksburg, the Hokies hit 9 of 17 shots from beyond the arc, and they shot 57.7 percent from the floor in the second half. At JPJ, the `Hoos held Tech (13-12, 5-7) to 35.6-percent accuracy from the floor.

“I think we’ve done a really good job in practice of really just trying to get back to the way we used to play defense and really emphasizing the defensive end,” Tobey said. “That’s kind of what’s made this team successful in the past, and we’re really trying to get back to that.”

Junior forward Zach LeDay, who torched Virginia for 22 points at Cassell Coliseum, battled foul trouble Tuesday night, missed 6 of 7 field-goal attempts and finished with only seven points. Junior guard Seth Allen, who came in averaging 14.4 points, scored six. Another Tech starter, freshman Kerry Blackshear Jr. went scoreless.

By the first media timeout — at the 15:36 mark of the opening half — the Hokies had four turnovers. They finished with 15.

“Like I say after every game, the only way we’re going to win games here at UVA is by the defense,” Gill said, “and we understand that as a team. We strive to be the best defensive team that we can be, so we go out there every night and try to prove it.”

This marked the fourth straight game in which the Cavaliers held their opponent to 50 points or fewer.

“We caught some breaks,” Bennett said. “[The Hokies] had some point-blank layups or dunks that they missed, and we gave away a few too. So we weren’t great defensively, but we were better. I thought we didn’t get split as much on the ball screens and we slid a little better.

“I think we’re playing better collectively defensively. Our defense is such a team defensive system. You need good individual slides on the ball and close-outs, but it really relies on all the guys being in the right position and making it hard. We were tied a little tighter together, and I just think we’re in sync a little more than we were at the time we played them [last month].”

UP NEXT: At 4:30 p.m. Saturday, in a game ESPN will televise, Virginia plays Duke (18-6, 7-4) in Durham, N.C. The Blue Devils have won three straight since losing Jan. 25 at Miami.

Cameron Indoor Stadium is the only ACC arena in which Bennett has not won in his seven seasons as UVA’s head coach. Virginia has not won in Durham since Jan. 14, 1995.

“I’m excited,” Tobey said. “It’s always exciting to play against Duke. Obviously, the history in Cameron is a big thing, and being our senior year, this is our last opportunity to go in there and hopefully get a win.”

In March 2014, the Cavaliers defeated the Devils in the championship game of the ACC tournament. The teams met only once last season, Duke winning 69-63 at JPJ.

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