March 2, 2016
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
GREENVILLE, S.C. — In a four-game stretch in January, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team lost three times, dropping to 2-3 in ACC play. Each of those defeats came away from John Paul Jones Arena, and the slump raised questions about the Cavaliers’ mental toughness and grit.
UVA has answered those questions over the past six weeks. In the 12 games since its Jan. 19 loss at Florida State, Virginia has won 10 times. The two losses during that span — at Duke and at Miami — were by a combined four points.
The Wahoos’ latest victory came Tuesday night at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, where they defeated ACC rival Clemson 64-57 in their final road game of the regular season.
“We just never stop fighting,” junior point guard London Perrantes said. “We took some [losses], we took some lumps, at the beginning of the season, but we learned from them and kept going and kept pushing. We’re hoping that it helps us in the long run, and I feel like it has. I think we’re starting to figure out what we need to do to win every game.”
The `Hoos entered the year seeking a third straight ACC regular-season title, and that remains a possibility. Heading into its regular-season finale, Saturday night at JPJ, Virginia (23-6, 12-5) is tied with Louisville (23-7, 12-5) for third in the conference. Miami (23-5, 12-4) is in second and North Carolina (24-5, 13-4) is in first.
In 2014-15, the Cavaliers won 14 of their first 15 conference games to secure the ACC regular-season title. They had to battle back into contention this season.
“This year we’ve lost some tough ones,” head coach Tony Bennett said, “and [the players] haven’t made excuses, they haven’t whined. They’ve just shown up and played and realized it’s worth the fight, and that’s what I’ve liked.”
Bennett also liked his team’s poise in the final minutes against Clemson (16-13, 9-8). After Jaron Blossomgame, unstoppable all night, hit a 3-pointer to pull the Tigers to 53-52, Perrantes quieted the home fans, taking a pass from sophomore Marial Shayok and burying a trey from the right corner with 2:42 left.
Virginia led by at least four points the rest of the way.
“We’re resilient,” said fifth-year senior Malcolm Brogdon, who led the `Hoos with 18 points. “I think it just speaks to our maturity. We learn from every game. This is a game we probably would have lost earlier in ACC play, and we’ve learned from that, and we stay steady.”
Brogdon made four 3-pointers, all in the first half. On a night when the Cavaliers went 9 for 19 from beyond the arc, Perrantes, Shayok and redshirt sophomore Devon Hall each hit a momentum-changing trey in the second half.
“We needed them all, and they were good looks,” Bennett said.
With the Tigers’ on-campus arena, Littlejohn Coliseum, under renovation, the game was played in Greenville, and the proceedings could not have started much better for the Cavaliers. Virginia bolted to a 12-0 lead as Clemson missed its first 10 shots from the floor.
At that point, Brogdon later said, “I’m thinking, `We’ve got it rolling right now, but they’re going to make a run. We’re at their home, and Blossomgame is going to get going, and they’re going to make a run. So we’ve got to be ready for that.’ ”
Bennett said: “I liked how we started. You know there’s going to be an ebb and a flow in the game, you certainly do, but I liked the shots we got, I liked our position defensively, I liked our rebounding.
“But then, as good as we were, then all of the sudden we gave up six or seven buckets in a row from silly breakdowns that we shouldn’t have.”
Bennett added: “I like our highs being that high. I just don’t like our lows being that low when we have those breakdowns.”
The Tigers twice cut their deficit to three in the first half, but Virginia went into the break ahead 33-27. Less than four minutes in the second half, the Cavaliers’ lead was gone. At the 16:21 mark, a 3-pointer by Blossomgame, a 6-7, 220-pound junior, gave Clemson its first lead, at 35-34, and prompted a UVA timeout.
The group Bennett sent back onto the floor consisted of four guards — Perrantes, Hall, Shayok and Brogdon — and one post player, 6-8 Anthony Gill. Sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins, a starter, re-entered for a 49-second appearance near the midpoint of the second half, but otherwise Virginia always had four guards on the court.
“It was by necessity,” Bennett said. “The way Blossomgame got going, we just didn’t have a matchup for him. [Virginia] needed someone that would be close enough to bother his shot, and he was terrific. It forced us to go unconventional.”
Asked how often the `Hoos practice four-guard lineups, Gill flashed a grin.
“Never,” he said. “We worked on it a lot in the summertime, pretty much almost every day in the summertime, and then we kind of got away from it.”
Desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures. The Cavaliers’ big men were unable to stop — or even slow — Blossomgame, who finished with 31 points, two shy of his career high. The smaller lineup, in which the 6-5 Brogdon drew the assignment of covering Blossomgame, had more success.
“We weren’t perfect,” Bennett said. “We had some mistakes, but I thought we kind of righted the ship with those four guards and figured out our ball-screen defense and what we were going to do in the trap, and then ran some decent offense.”
Even without the benefit of practice time, Virginia looked comfortable with four guards on the court, for good reason, Brogdon said. “We like playing together, and as a team we have natural chemistry.”
Virginia is accustomed to big games from Brogdon, a leading candidate for ACC player of the year, and he delivered again Tuesday night. But he received strong support from multiple teammates.
Perrantes (13 points) made three treys and led UVA with four assists. Hall finished with nine points and a career-high seven rebounds, and Shayok, the only UVA reserve to score Tuesday night, contributed nine points and five boards.
Gill (11 points and 10 rebounds) recorded his third double-double of the season and tied his career high with three steals. He had only one assist, but it was a memorable one.
After setting a pick up top, Gill took a pass from Perrantes and drove into the lane. When Clemson’s Donte Grantham blocked his path, Gill slipped a pass to Hall, who threw down an emphatic dunk that made it 58-52 with 1:24 left.
“I tell the guys all the time that I’m the real point guard of the team,” Gill said, smiling, “and that just showed tonight, that one glimpse. The world got to see me play the point guard for a little bit on that pass.”
His teammates’ takes?
“It was great,” Brogdon said of Gill’s pass, “because he doesn’t do it often.”
Hall said: “I didn’t know if he was going to pass it, but I just wanted to be there available if he did.”
Virginia was coming off a 79-74 victory over North Carolina, a game in which Hall matched his ACC career high with 11 points. He provided another significant lift for the Cavaliers against Clemson.
“It’s huge,” Brogdon said. “It’s huge if we can have another consistent contributor that can take pressure off of the main guys that do most of the scoring.”
Shayok was equally important in Greenville. He scored six points in the final 4:25, the first two coming on a driving left-handed layup.
“We went four guards, so that gave Devon and Marial opportunities, and they stepped up huge for us,” Perrantes said. “They fought defensively and offensively, and we needed all of it.”
GRAND FINALE:– Virginia closes the regular season Saturday at 8:30 p.m. against No. 11 Louisville (23-7, 12-5) at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena.
When the teams met Jan. 30 at the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville, the Cavaliers never trailed in a 63-47 victory over the Cardinals.
The `Hoos are 14-0 at home this season.
“We’ve got to come in ready to protect our home court,” Brogdon said.
The ACC tournament starts next week in Washington, D.C.