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Nov. 23, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — After they posted another convincing victory Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, it was time for members of the University of Virginia men’s basketball team to pack. The Cavaliers are heading south for the holiday.

In Florida, where the Wahoos will celebrate Thanksgiving, they’ll experience temperatures much warmer than those back in Virginia. On the court, they can expect to encounter much tougher competition than they’ve faced so far this season.

Through four games, seventh-ranked Virginia is 4-0, with an average margin of victory of 36.3 points. Those four opponents play in the Southern Conference, Northeast Conference, Ivy League and Southwestern Athletic Conference, respectively.

“We have lots of room for improvement, but it’s been solid so far,” junior swingman Marial Shayok said Tuesday night after UVA’s 90-34 win over Grambling State at JPJ.

A more challenging stretch of the schedule begins Friday, when Virginia faces Iowa (3-1) at 7 p.m. in the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The Hawkeyes’ standouts include 6-6 senior Peter Jok, who’s averaging 24.3 points per game.

On Saturday, Virginia will take on Memphis (4-0) or Providence (3-1).

“We’ll be as ready as we can,” head coach Tony Bennett said.

Although the Cavaliers have yet to play a close game, they test “each other in practice every day,” redshirt junior guard Darius Thompson said. “We go against each other every day, battling against one of the better defenses in the country. So I just think practices make us prepared for anybody.”

Over the next six weeks, Virginia’s opponents will include Iowa, Memphis or Providence, Ohio State, West Virginia, California, Louisville and Florida State.

It won’t be enough, Bennett noted, for the `Hoos “to play a 20-minute game. You’re going to have to play the majority of the possessions of a 40-minute game to have a chance, and we understand that.”

By the 20-minute mark Tuesday night, the game was effectively over at JPJ. Virginia, en route to its 23rd straight victory at JPJ, led 49-9 at intermission. The Tigers (1-3) had a little more success in the second half against UVA’s Pack-Line defense, but for the game they shot 23.1 percent from the floor.

“I don’t think that you can imagine what it’s like to play against that defense,” Grambling State head coach Shawn Walker said.

For the first time since 1945-46, Virginia has held three consecutive opponents to fewer than 40 points. After opening with a 76-51 win at UNC Greensboro, UVA defeated St. Francis Brooklyn 72-32 and Yale 62-38, both at JPJ.

“We were really in the gaps [against Grambling State],” Bennett told reporters. “We just said, `Look, they’re going to have to make some contested shots over the top. That’s the goal of our defense all the time: make people beat us shooting contested outside shots.

“That’s one thing we’ve been working really hard on, and I think showed over all the games we’ve played. We’ve been a little tighter and a little sounder positionally, because we need to. We don’t always have a guy who can just lock someone up on the perimeter, though we’re not bad. And then when we do have a breakdown, we’ve had some nice shot-blockers back there. Again, the competition will continue to step up, so that’ll be tested, but that’s a staple of our defense, being set in transition defense and then really being tied tight together.”

At the other end, the Cavaliers were credited with assists on 23 of their 33 field goals. They shot 55 percent from the floor.

“The basket was big,” Bennett said.

Two nights before Thanksgiving, Bennett was thrilled to be able to reward walk-ons Justice Bartley, Trevon Gross Jr. and Jeff Jones with extensive playing time. Each logged at least 10 minutes.

“It was amazing,” Bartley said. “Great experience.”

This is Bennett’s eighth season at UVA, and some of his favorite memories involve shots made by such beloved walk-ons as Caid Kirven and Thomas Rogers.

“Because you should see how hard they work and what they do,” Bennett said. “They’re such servants. I say that all the time. In practice, they’ll stand down, they’ll bother the shooters, they’ll rebound, they’ll sit out reps. They just do whatever’s required … Hopefully we’ll get some more opportunities to play those guys if we’re up.”

To the delight of the crowd, Bartley, Gross and Jones each hit a 3-pointer against the Tigers, and Bartley, a 6-5 sophomore, also had a dunk. That gave the Cavaliers their first 90-point game under Bennett.

“I’m really blessed and thankful to have this opportunity,” Bartley said.

With 10:54 to play, Gross entered the game, replacing freshman Kyle Guy, who left to a standing ovation. In a dazzling display of marksmanship, Guy scored a season-high 20 points in only 13 minutes Tuesday, hitting 6 of 7 shots from the floor (5 of 6 from beyond the arc) and 3 of 3 from the line.

For the season, the 6-3 Guy is shooting 70 percent from the floor — 80 percent from 3-point range — and 89 percent from the line.

“I tell you what I like: He’s letting the game come [to him],” Bennett said. “He really is. He’s taking those shots and he’s not pressing or forcing.

“He has a nice feel for when to shoot, when not to shoot, and that’s impressed me most, with a guy that has a weapon like that — [the ability] to shoot it — and I think that serves him well. And he’s working defensively.”

Guy said: “I’ve been trying to be really poised and focused and make sure I’m mentally prepared for each game. Credit to the coaching staff and everybody else on the team who prepares me for the games. I expect to go through my ups and downs, but I just try to stay even-keeled through it all.”

Every Cavalier who played Tuesday night scored at least two points. (Freshmen Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter are redshirting). Shayok, UVA’s leading scorer this season, came off the bench to contribute 12 points in 14 minutes, and Thompson had 12 points in 16 minutes.

Thompson, who has started every game, is averaging 9.8 points. He averaged 4.3 points last season, as did Shayok.

“I think these consistent minutes are good for them,” Bennett said. “Obviously as the competition improves, there’ll be competition for time, and whoever’s playing well will be out there. But [Thompson] is off to a good start.”

Bennett has started the same lineup in each game: 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jack Salt at center, 6-7 junior Isaiah Wilkins at power forward and Thompson, 6-2 senior London Perrantes and 6-5 redshirt junior Devon Hall on the perimeter.

Hall struggled Sunday afternoon against Yale, missing all five of his shots from the floor. He was sharper Tuesday night, hitting a trey in the first half and finishing with five points, three assists and two rebounds in 16 minutes.

“I need Devon to be Devon Hall,” Bennett said. “He’s really guarding well, and he’s taken that challenge on, and [he needs to] just let it come offensively. I thought against Yale he pressed a little bit.”

Hall’s “experience and his feel for the game and his ability to guard is significant for us,” Bennett said. “In different games he’ll need to do different things. We’ll just take it as it goes. But I was glad to see him knock down a three. That guy works. He really works, Devon does, on his game. He’s working on his shot, and he’s made some big ones for us. Hopefully that will continue. It was good to see a three-ball go in.”

Bennett smiled. “I teased him, because [the players on the bench] were chuckling a little bit, because [Gross] shot a couple airballs. I said, `Devon, don’t laugh too much. You shot an airball too.’ “

The Cavaliers’ mood was upbeat after the game Tuesday. But Bennett took no pleasure in Grambling State’s misfortune.

“You don’t wish that on anybody,” Bennett said. “I didn’t enjoy that, to be honest, looking at that score.”

He hasn’t forgotten the December 2004 game in which Washington State lost 81-29 to Oklahoma State. Bennett was one of his father’s assistant coaches on that Wazzu team.

“I’ve been on that side,” he said.

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