By Jeff White (email@example.com)
PITTSBURGH — On the bus ride to the airport and the short flight home to Charlottesville early Thursday, Tony Bennett had time to review videotape of his team’s latest ACC game.
For a basketball coach who has built his program on a foundation of stifling defense, it was not an enjoyable experience.
At the Petersen Events Center late Wednesday night, Pitt’s arsenal of mobile, explosive scorers torched Virginia’s Pack-Line defense as few opponents have during Bennett’s eight seasons as an ACC head coach.
The No. 11 Wahoos entered the game ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (48.6 ppg) and No. 2 in field-goal percentage defense (35.2). That defensive prowess was nowhere to be seen Wednesday night. The Panthers made 13 of 21 shots from beyond the 3-point arc and shot 53.7 percent from the floor overall in an 88-76 victory.
“We weren’t a good defensive team tonight,” Bennett said. “[Defense is] an all-the-time kind of thing, and it wasn’t on all the time. There were some big holes tonight that we can’t afford against teams of this caliber in this league.”
The `Hoos (11-3 overall, 1-2 ACC) forced overtime on an NBA-length 3-pointer by senior point guard London Perrantes with 2.4 seconds left in regulation, and an eighth straight victory over the Panthers seemed possible. But Pitt (12-3, 1-1) scored the first nine points of the extra period — on three treys — and won going away.
“It was a heck of a shot by London to get it to overtime,” Bennett said, “and I’m very disappointed that — boom — they got out [to a nine-point lead] right away. We’ve got to be better than that and tighten up some things.”
Five players scored in double figures for the Cavaliers, who shot 49.3 percent from the floor and turned the ball over only six times. But the Panthers pounded UVA on the boards, and that was as critical as their sharp-shooting.
In the first half, Pitt had more offensive rebounds (nine) than Virginia had total rebounds (eight). The Panthers finished with a 42-24 edge in rebounding and turned their 12 offensive boards into 21 second-chance points.
“Those things are just tears in your defense,” Bennett said. “We had a lot of breakdowns.”
And so the Cavaliers, for the second straight season, find themselves with a 1-2 conference record in early January. In 2015-16, the `Hoos shored up their defensive deficiencies and went on to finish 13-5 in ACC play. But that team had a deep, talented frontcourt led by Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, and a backcourt led by All-America guard Malcolm Brogdon.
Bennett’s latest team has much less room for error, especially in a season when the ACC is exceptionally deep and strong. Next up for Virginia is an 8 p.m. game Sunday against Wake Forest (10-5, 1-2) at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Demon Deacons are averaging 80.9 points per game and shooting 39.5 percent from beyond the arc. Five Wake players have made at least 18 treys this season.
“We just need to get back to the drawing board and trusting in the system and getting stops and executing on defense,” UVA guard Devon Hall said, “because that really is our calling card.”
Perrantes said: “We’re going to keep going, we’re going to keep grinding, we’re going to keep trying to find a way.”
Hall, a 6-5 redshirt junior, finished with 15 points and a game-high nine rebounds– both career highs — and he’s looking increasingly comfortable at the offensive end. But on a night when Bennett regularly used small lineups against a Pitt team loaded with 3-point shooters, Hall sometimes found himself guarding 6-9, 235-pound Michael Young in the post, and other Cavaliers faced similar mismatches.
Young is one of four senior starters for Pitt, and he finished with 19 points, six rebounds and five assists. Two of his classmates, 6-7 Jamel Artis and 6-8 Sheldon Jeter, contributed 24 and 16 points, respectively, and Cameron Johnson, a 6-8 redshirt sophomore, hit four treys and scored 16 points.
“They’re certainly a terrific shooting team,” Bennett said of the Panthers, who in their first season under head coach Kevin Stallings have two of the ACC’s top three scorers in Young (22.7 ppg) and Artis (21.4).
Between them, Artis and Johnson were 10 for 12 from beyond the arc Wednesday. In Pitt’s lone game against UVA last season, Johnson missed both of his 3-point attempts. After averaging 4.8 points per game in 2015-16, he’s up to 12.7 this season and might be the ACC’s most improved player.
The Cavaliers were coming off a 60-58 loss to Florida State at JPJ, a game in which freshman guard Kyle Guy led them with 14 points. In his first college start, Guy had no such success Wednesday night in an arena where Pitt’s student section, dubbed the Oakland Zoo, booed him every time he touched the ball.
Virginia’s most accurate outside shooter this season, Guy made only 1 of 7 attempts against Pitt and finished with two points in 23 minutes.
“He’s been playing well,” Bennett said. “I was hoping that he could maybe stretch the defense a little bit, get some shots to fall. It just wasn’t happening. That’s part of growing and learning as a young guy.”
Perrantes said: “Tonight just wasn’t his night.”
Redshirt freshman Darius Thompson, the guard Guy replaced in the starting lineup Wednesday night, had 11 points in 26 minutes off the bench. Two other UVA reserves — 6-5 junior Marial Shayok and 6-7 sophomore Jarred Reuter — scored 14 and 10 points, respectively.
Perrantes led the `Hoos with 16 points, 14 of which came in the second half.
“There were certainly good stretches of offensive basketball at times,” Bennett said, “but to win you’ve got to be able to get some stops when it matters, and I thought [the Panthers] got what they wanted, and that was disappointing.”
With 11:30 left in the second half, Pitt led by seven points, but Virginia responded with a 12-2 run. Two treys Artis in a 90-second span helped the Panthers regain the lead, and UVA trailed by four with 1:35 to play in regulation.
“The comeback was very good, and the ways [Virginia players] finished and made some plays was real positive,” Bennett said. “So I take that for what it’s worth. But I just know we have to be consistently better in some areas defensively to be a really good defensive team.”
In Virginia’s ACC opener, a 61-53 win at Louisville, its 3-point defense was outstanding. The Cardinals made only 2 of 14 shots from beyond the arc. Florida State, however, was 8 for 15 from long range, and Pitt was even hotter.
“We gotta be better,” Shayok said. “We gotta just do what we practice. We’ve got to do a better job of doing that on a consistent basis throughout the whole game.”