Dec. 29, 2016

By Jeff White (

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Early in the second half, with the No. 12 Virginia Cavaliers leading sixth-ranked Louisville 44-26 at the KFC Yum! Center, a fan in the student section vented his displeasure.

“They do this to us every year,” he groused.

In 2015-16, UVA swept the Cardinals, beating them 63-47 in Louisville and 68-46 in Charlottesville. The final score wasn’t as one-sided Wednesday night — 61-53 — but for the second straight season the Wahoos never trailed in front of a near-capacity crowd at the 22,000-seat Yum! Center.

”Virginia seems to be our kryptonite,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. ”We just don’t play well against them.”

The Cardinals are 1-4 against UVA since joining the ACC, with the lone victory coming on an improbable game-winning shot in the 2014-15 regular-season finale. The key to Virginia’s recent dominance in this series, point guard London Perrantes said, is simple.

“Our defense,” said Perrantes, the only senior among UVA’s scholarship players. “That’s where our success comes from, and I think our defense kind of hurts [the Cardinals], because we get back in transition, and that’s where most of their offense comes from in other games, and so they struggle when they can’t play in transition.”

The Cards (11-2, 0-1) came in averaging 78 points per game and were coming off a scintillating victory over then-No. 6 Kentucky at the Yum! Center. Against the Cavaliers (11-1, 1-0), who lead the nation in scoring defense, Louisville managed only 21 points (and no assists) in the first half of a game shown nationally on ESPN2.

“Their game plan was to stop the open shots and let no one have open looks,” Louisville forward Jaylen Johnson. “Every shot, they were there.”

The Cardinals, as usual, are long and athletic. They want to run, and trying to break down Virginia’s trademark Pack-Line defense is never fun. The `Hoos knew they had to make the Cards uncomfortable.

“I remember watching the Louisville-Kentucky game [on TV], and they were up and down really, really fast,” said UVA redshirt junior guard Devon Hall, who with 10 points was the only player on either team to score in double figures Wednesday night.

“I watched it and I was like, `All right, when we play them, we better get back, or we’re going to have a problem.’ ”

Head coach Tony Bennett said: “We had to try to make them go against our set defense.”

Also stressed, time and again in practice, was the necessity of taking care of the ball and keeping the Cards off the offensive boards.

“I sound like a broken record, but those are always our keys,” Bennett said. “I told our guys, `You gotta do them at an A or at least an A-minus level, all three of those areas.

“We probably slid into a B late in the game. We didn’t take care of the ball, and they got a few [transition baskets] on us, but I thought we for the most part worked hard on blocking out.”

After posting a pair of impressive road victories — they won 56-52 at California on Dec. 21 — the Cavaliers can look forward to their ACC home opener. At 2 p.m. Saturday, the `Hoos host No. 20 Florida State (13-1, 1-0) at John Paul Jones Arena, where they haven’t played since Dec. 17.

FSU opened ACC play Wednesday night with an 88-72 win over Wake Forest in Tallahassee.

“I love to play in front of our fans,” Perrantes said, “but I’m excited for any game. I was really excited for this one, and I’m glad we got the outcome that we wanted.”

This is Bennett’s eighth season at UVA, and his record in ACC openers is 8-0. With its extraordinary balance, though, his latest team differs from its predecessors.

No Cavalier averages more than 9.9 points — Perrantes leads the team — but nine players average at least 5.3 points apiece.

“I think we have such an unselfish team,” Bennett said. “Their unity and their unselfishness is a thing of beauty when they’re right, the way they help each other defensively and move the ball.”

Against Louisville, seven UVA players scored at least six points. Five Cavaliers grabbed at least four rebounds, led by 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jack Salt with seven. The 6-5 Hall matched his season high with six boards. Virginia finished with 31 rebounds to 25 for Louisville.

“Our team is collective,” Bennett said. ”If that’s not a team win — if how we play isn’t a group thing — then I don’t know what is.”

Junior forward Isaiah Wilkins put it best, said freshman guard Kyle Guy.

“We came over after a timeout and he said, `We’re playing together and it’s beautiful,’ ” Guy told reporters. “That’s what we’re all about, unity.”

Guy, who’s from Indianapolis, about 110 miles north of Louisville, scored nine points in 19 minutes off the bench in front of a sizable cheering section of family and friends.

Of his three field goals, the biggest was the jumper Guy hit from the right baseline with 1:59 remaining. Those were the Cavaliers’ first points in nearly five minutes and pushed their lead to 59-48.

“I think that everybody felt that we needed a basket,” Guy said. “It just happened to be me that had that split second to be able to get a shot off, and I knocked it down.”

Virginia, which went into the break up 36-21, stretched its lead to 21 before Louisville rallied in the final nine minutes.

“We didn’t play well down the stretch,” Bennett said. “We needed that lead. We were leaking oil.”

With 6:46 left, a free throw by Perrantes, who played the entire second half, stopped a 9-0 run by the Cards, but they kept coming. Louisville responded with four straight points before Guy quieted the home fans with his jumper.

Guy also supplied late-game heroics in Berkeley, where UVA ended Cal’s 27-game home winning streak. He finished that game with 17 points.

“You always ask, `Who’s going to make the play for you down the stretch? Who do you have that can go get a bucket?’ ” Bennett said. “And Kyle’s done that a couple games now.”

Guy wasn’t the only newcomer on the court for the Cavaliers late in the game Wednesday night. Mamadi Diakite, a 6-9 redshirt freshman, coolly sank both ends of a one-and-one with 28 seconds remaining to give Virginia a 61-51 lead.

Diakite was 3 for 3 from the floor and 2 for 2 from the line and totaled eight points, four rebounds and two steals in 15 minutes off the bench.

“You could see that our young guys, they’re still figuring it out, but they’re coming, and that’s big,” Bennett said. “[Diakite] gives us a level of athleticism and pop that we don’t have [otherwise]. He’s by far our most athletic guy.”

Diakite said: “I think I’m improving. I’m taking a step after every game. I make sure to watch the tape and see where I didn’t play well, what I did wrong, and try to improve that.”

If Diakite is the Cavaliers’ most athletic player, guard Darius Thompson isn’t far behind. Late in the first half, the 6-4 redshirt junior went up, up and then up a little more to catch a lob pass from Perrantes. Thompson’s emphatic slam stretched Virginia’s lead to 28-19.

“It’s never drawn up,” said Perrantes, who had as many assists (seven) as Louisville. “D.T. knows when the [opponent’s] big isn’t going to be down there, and he knows that I know. So when he goes off and he feels like he’s open, and he’s ready to jump, then I just know that whenever he’s going, I can just throw it up there.”

Perrantes smiled. “He’s always mad at me for underthrowing [the lob]. So I was like, `OK, I’m not going to underthrow it any more. I’m going to just throw it up high.’ I just wanted to get it up there. I knew he was athletic enough to go get it.”

Such plays — and decisions — carried the Cavaliers to a memorable road win over a top-10 opponent.

“It sounds strange,” Bennett said, “but I kept saying to the guys, `I want you to be really patient and really aggressive. You gotta break `em down, you gotta move the ball, but you gotta be aggressive at the right time. You gotta find that sweet spot in this game offensively.’

“I thought for the majority of the game, we were right in that sweet spot: aggressive, but not out of control; patient, but not passive or hesitant.”

Guy said: “This is a huge step in the right direction for us.”

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