By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBACETE, Spain– They gathered outside the locker rooms at Pabellon del Parque, local children enjoying themselves on a warm Saturday afternoon, and chanted with heavy Spanish accents: “Vir-gin-ia! Vir-gin-ia!”
It was a reception befitting royalty, and University of Virginia men’s basketball players and coaches could not help but smile as they exited their locker room.
“That was really cool,” freshman forward Jay Huff said. “It just goes to show how big basketball is getting overseas. It’s pretty amazing.”
After a three-day stay in Madrid, where they won both of their games, the Cavaliers left Friday morning and bused about 160 miles to Albacete, with a stop in the holy city of Toledo.
In Toledo, several players braved a zip-line over the Tagus River. The first to buckle up and jump was Jack Salt, and the rest of the traveling party watched intently as the 6-11 center handled the ride with aplomb.
Game 3 offered no such suspense. Against the local professional club, Arcos Albacete Basket, UVA dominated from the start and led 39-14 at halftime. It was 57-20 after three quarters, and head coach Tony Bennett inserted walk-ons Jeff Jones, Justice Bartley and Trevon Gross Jr. in the fourth.
Albacete scored the game’s final 11 points, but the Wahoos still won going away, 70-44. And they did so without big men Austin Nichols and Jarred Reuter and guard Devon Hall, all of whom were given the day off.
The game drew an enthusiastic crowd that included many Albacete supporters, as well as UVA fans Len and Sharon Ponder of Petersburg, Va., who also attended the games in Madrid.
The lopsided score notwithstanding, associate head coach Ron Sanchez said, the game benefited the `Hoos. Most of the minutes Saturday went to the team’s least experienced players: freshmen Huff, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter, redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite and Salt, a redshirt sophomore.
“We were still able to see some of the young guys,” Sanchez said, “and regardless of the competition, we came here to accomplish certain things and to work on certain things, especially defensively, and I think we were able to accomplish some of that. And by giving some of the young guys a few minutes, we were able to see some of those things.”
The 6-11 Huff contributed 14 points, seven rebounds and a game-high five blocked shots. Salt grabbed a game-high eight rebounds, and the 6-9 Diakite pulled down seven. Guy and Hunter scored eight points apiece, and Jerome had four assists.
“Having Ty at the point for a while, getting Kyle a few more shots, things of that nature, we were able to see [things] that we hadn’t before,” Sanchez said.
Senior point guard London Perrantes (seven points, four assists) and junior swingman Marial Shayok (12 points) played only 15 and 16 minutes, respectively, but they weren’t needed against overmatched Albacete.
Perrantes didn’t object. He knows the Cavaliers’ objectives on the trip include “getting the young guys acquainted with what we do and being able to get them some time,” Perrantes said.
“They played most of the second half [Saturday]. I think that’s a big difference between my freshman year and theirs. We just had those two scrimmages before the season to play [in 2013], but we’ve got these games for them to get their feet underneath them and get some shots up and play some defense. So I think it’s good for them.”
Huff flashed the skills that make him such an intriguing prospect. He scored from the perimeter and in the paint, and his long arms bothered many of the shots he didn’t block.
“At the end of the day, he just has to get used to the speed of the game and being in position,” Sanchez said, “and it’s nice to be able to work on those things against different opponents.”
Huff said: “Toward the end I think tired out – maybe I was just a little out of shape after some travel — but overall I feel pretty good about [the game].”
Sanchez speaks fluent Spanish, and that proved useful when Virginia coaches and players had questions about the officials’ rules interpretations. Multiple traveling violations have been called on the `Hoos in their three games in Spain.
The crew in Albacete “admitted that the speed of the game was a little faster [than usually seen in Spain], and they only had two officials,” Sanchez said. “It was a combination of us not putting the ball down quick enough and moving our feet too fast.”
Confusion over the game site made the morning an eventful one for the visitors. The Cavaliers left their hotel at 10:30 Saturday, bound for a university about 15 minutes away. Upon arrival, they learned the game was to be played instead at Pabellon del Parque, about 100 yards from the team hotel.
“We could have just walked here,” Perrantes said, smiling.
The 1,000-seat venue was unlike anything most of the players had ever seen in the United States. There were two levels of wooden seats on each side of the court, a vast ceiling, a handball goal at each end, and no air conditioning. The rubber floor was blue around the edges, with a green volleyball court in the middle.
“I like it,” assistant coach Brad Soderberg said.
So did Huff.
“It’s not JPJ or anything like that,” he said, “but my policy has kind of always been `anytime, anywhere, under any conditions,’ so if it’s a gym, I’ll play in it, and this one actually has kind of a cool atmosphere.”
It’s easy for U.S. players to “take for granted how great things are, and how great their set-up is at home,” Sanchez said.
He looked around him. “This is a great venue,” Sanchez said. “It’s good for the guys to see it and to kind of see what Europe is like, and international basketball as a whole.”
Fifteen minutes before tipoff, the P.A. system came to life, cranking out Drake at top volume as the players warmed up.
Fifteen minutes after the game, local kids were still hanging out in the gym, hoping for glimpses of the Cavaliers.
“It’s a great experience,” said Perrantes, who’s from Los Angeles. “Even playing in an arena like this, it’s just something different and something you don’t see in the U.S. We’re just having fun out here.”
In Toledo, the Cavaliers learned about the renowned swords made there and soaked in the history of a town in which Christians, Muslims and Jews once lived together peacefully.
“It’s amazing, just being able to go out and travel the world with the team, with your brothers and the coaching staff,” Perrantes said, “and just be able to hang out as well to play basketball. It’s been fun. Spain is an amazing place.”
Virginia 20 19 18 13 — 70
Albacete 10 4 6 24 — 44
UVA scoring: Huff 14, Shayok 12, Guy 8, Hunter 8, Perrantes 7, Jerome 6, Wilkins 6, Thompson 4, Diakite 2, Jones 2, Salt 1, Bartley 0, Gross 0.