Jan. 9, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For ACC men’s basketball teams, extended breaks between games are rare once conference play begins. But after playing four times in 12 days, Virginia does not have another game until Saturday afternoon.
The Cavaliers, who have Monday off, will return to practice Tuesday in good spirits. They ended a two-game losing streak Sunday night with a 79-62 victory over Wake Forest at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Demon Deacons (10-6, 1-3) were not ranked in last week’s Associated Press poll, but seven other ACC teams are: Duke at No. 8, Louisville at No. 9, Virginia at No. 11, Florida State at No. 12, North Carolina at No. 14, Virginia Tech at No. 21, and Notre Dame at No. 23.
“The ACC is a beast,” UVA forward Isaiah Wilkins said, “so every win in the ACC is a good win.”
Senior point guard London Perrantes scored 24 points, two shy of his career high. Wilkins, a 6-7 junior, had a career-best five blocked shots, as well as seven points, four rebounds and two steals. Devon Hall, a 6-5 redshirt junior, led the `Hoos in rebounding for the second straight game — he grabbed eight boards against Wake — and added 13 points.
Junior guard Marial Shayok, in his first start of the season, matched his career high with 17 points. Redshirt junior guard Darius Thompson, whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer lifted UVA to a dramatic comeback victory at Wake last season, hit two momentum-changing treys in a 30-second span of the second half Sunday night.
And then there was 6-11 center Jack Salt. As a redshirt sophomore, he can be considered an underclassman, but this is Salt’s third year in head coach Tony Bennett‘s program, so he’s something of a veteran.
Salt had five points, five rebounds, two assists and one block in 20 minutes.
“It was certainly a group effort,” Bennett said. “I just told the guys, `Play as hard as you can, as smart as you can, and as free as you can.’ We missed some free throws, had some shaky moments, a couple missed communications, but for the most part the guys did a good job and just kept playing. “
Virginia plays Saturday afternoon at Clemson (11-4, 1-2), whose Littlejohn Coliseum is never a welcoming venue for opposing teams. So there was plenty at stake for the `Hoos when they took the floor against Wake. They were coming off disappointing losses to Florida State and Pittsburgh, and another setback would have given them their first three-game losing streak in a season since 2010-11.
“We just needed to start playing with grit, start fighting and playing with more heart,” Perrantes said, “and I felt like we did tonight.”
The win did not come easily. Wake led 29-28 at the break, and the score was 46-46 midway through the second half. But Hall put the `Hoos ahead for good with 3-pointer at the 9:14 mark, and Salt followed with a three-point play that energized the home fans.
“They went crazy,” Wilkins said.
On a missed jumper by Thompson, Salt was fouled while slamming home the rebound. He added the free throw to make it 52-46, extending what became a 10-0 run for the Cavaliers.
“I called that dunk,” Wilkins, who lives with Salt, said with a smile. “Before the game, I was talking to Jack and I was like, `You’re going to get a putback dunk,’ because we were talking about one that he had last year. Every single time I tell Jack he’s going to get a dunk, he gets a dunk. It’s like magic.”
Poor perimeter defense contributed heavily to UVA’s losses to FSU and Pitt. The Seminoles made 8 of 15 shots from beyond the 3-point arc and the Panthers 13 of 21. The Deacons came to Charlottesville ranked fourth in the ACC in 3-point accuracy (39.5 percent), but they made only 6 of 21 attempts Sunday night.
Virginia showed improvement in other areas. After totaling only 10 free-throw attempts against FSU and Pitt, which combined for 52, UVA took 24 foul shots against Wake. (Sixteen of those free throws came in the final 3:17.)
“In practice the last few days, the coaches have been telling us to be more aggressive. Quit settling as much for jump shots, try to get in the lane and draw fouls so we can get easier points,” Thompson said. “I think we did a pretty good job of that today.”
The Cavaliers, outrebounded 42-24 at Pitt, also acquitted themselves well on the boards against Wake, winning that battle 37-32. Hall, who had nine boards against the Panthers, continued to rebound well against taller opponents.
“He’s played well,” Bennett said. “He’s playing hard, he’s tough. He’s complete. I think he’s establishing himself out there. I like him on the glass. When we go with four guards, he’s battling hard [inside], and we need what he’s bringing. I couldn’t be more pleased, because he’s a hard worker.”
Hall said: “I just try to do whatever I can for the team. I try to be as much of a leader as I can and try to stay aggressive on the offensive end and be as sound as I can defensively.”
Before the game, Bennett shared with his players a quote from former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson: “In order for us to be great, everyone just has to be good. Not everyone has to be great.”
Bennet told his players, “You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be unbelievable. Just be good.”
They responded as he hoped they would. “It was a step in the right direction,” Bennett said.
For a program built on rugged defense, Virginia’s performance against Pitt was out of character, and neither coaches nor players were pleased.
“I kept saying, `Too loose, too loose. It needs to tighten up,’ ” Bennett said Sunday night. “It wasn’t perfectly tight [against Wake], but the bolt maybe turned a half a turn. So now we’ve got to turn it a little more. That’s a process that takes a lot of work.”
On a night when three Cavaliers scored in double figures, Wilkins was not one of them. Even so, his play at the offensive end was important. Twice he hit pick-and-pop baseline jumpers, and he made his only 3-point attempt.
“We’ll take any points we can get from our interior [players],” Bennett said.
As a sophomore last season, Wilkins started 21 games in a frontcourt that included Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, both accomplished scorers, and he averaged only 4.6 points. Wilkins’s average is up to 6.1 points this season, and his teammates believes he’s capable of more.
It’s great that Wilkins relishes making hustle plays, Perrantes said, but “we’ve also told him that he needs to start knocking those shots down, even just shooting them. Making the defense [cover Wilkins] is going to open it up for everybody else. And I get on him every day in practice when he turns one down, especially the ones that I pass to him.”
Wilkins said he’s been working on his jumper, putting up extra shots before and after practices, “because I have to be able to knock that down, or really nobody’s guarding me. It’s definitely something I have to keep being consistent with and confident with.”
Late in the game Sunday night, Wilkins limped off the court with what athletic trainer Ethan Saliba diagnosed as a hip pointer.
“But it’s all good,” Wilkins said, smiling. “I was `Grandpa’ before, so I solidified that.”
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, the schedule gives Wilkins a little extra time to heal.
“We gotta get him healthy and just keep trying to improve,” Bennett said, “just keep chasing it hard, knowing we’re going [to face] a team that’s real physical and real tough-minded in Clemson.”