By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the inevitable questions about Syracuse came late Wednesday night, University of Virginia guard London Perrantes feigned displeasure, as had his head coach, Tony Bennett, a few minutes earlier in the same room at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I haven’t thought about it till you brought it up right now, and now my heart’s pounding,” Perrantes said.
“Thanks a lot,” Bennett said. “I’ve gone to a lot of therapy and I’m over that, and you brought it up.”
The deadpan delivery of those one-liners was impeccable, and the Cavaliers’ good humor was understandable. It’s not every night an ACC team beats one of its biggest rivals by 23 points.
In the first of its two regular-season meetings with Virginia Tech — the rematch is Feb. 12 in Blacksburg — ninth-ranked UVA never trailed in a 71-48 victory Wednesday at JPJ. There was none of the late-game drama Virginia experienced Sunday in Philadelphia, where reigning NCAA champion Villanova rallied to win on a tip-in at the buzzer.
“Every game we play from here on out, they’re all highly charged,” Bennett said. “Sunday’s game was a hard-fought game, a tough loss. We took a lot of good things from it and tried to grow from the areas where we weren’t good, knowing the significance of this game with a quick turnaround. I like how we responded.”
The win over the Hokies was the Cavaliers’ ninth in their past 10 meetings. Virginia’s margin of victory was its largest in this series since Jan. 23, 1991. UVA scored the first 10 points Wednesday night and led by 14 at the break.
“We want to come out and hit [the opponent] first,” junior forward Isaiah Wilkins said, “and we were able to do that tonight.”
And now, at the midpoint of their ACC schedule, the Wahoos (17-4, 7-2) sit second in the conference standings, a half-game behind 12th-ranked North Carolina (20-4, 8-2). Their next test comes Saturday afternoon against Syracuse (14-9, 6-4) at the Carrier Dome.
In last year’s NCAA tournament, the Orange rallied from 16 points down in the second half to stun Virginia 68-62 in Chicago and advance to the Final Four.
“That was a terrific opportunity,” Bennett said. “But we’re such a different team [this season].”
As Virginia Tech (16-6, 5-5) can attest, however, this UVA team still plays the stifling man-to-man defense that has become Bennett’s trademark. The 48 points were the fewest the Hokies have scored this season. They came to Charlottesville averaging 81.2 points, with five players averaging at least 10.4 per game.
The `Hoos limited the Hokies to four fast-break points and held them to one field goal in the final 8:40. Senior guard Seth Allen, who played all 40 minutes, led Tech with 14 points.
The Hokies are “an effective offensive team, especially in transition, so it always starts there,” Bennett said. “They did miss a lot of shots. They had a few open ones and … they didn’t look like they were on tonight. So, that helped us, but I don’t want to take away from our guys working and trying to bother shots and not giving them a lot of easy looks.”
At the other end, Virginia struggled from beyond the 3-point arc (5 for 16) against Tech’s zone defenses but still shot 46.3 percent from the floor. The Cavaliers’ dominance on the glass — they outrebounded Tech 37-22 — helped their offense. Virginia turned its 11 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points.
The Hokies mounted only one serious challenge in the second half. After a jumper by Wilkins pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 52-33, Tech answered with eight straight points. Virginia responded with a 9-0 run that started with a Perrantes stepback jumper.
“I felt like I just needed to be aggressive at that point,” Perrantes said.
Perrantes, UVA’s lone senior, finished with 14 points. More unexpected were the contributions of two other Cavaliers: the 6-7 Wilkins and 6-5 redshirt junior Devon Hall.
Wilkins, who was 6 for 6 for the floor against Villanova, hit his first six shots Wednesday to tie the school record for consecutive field goals. He finished with a career-high 15 points and pulled down nine rebounds. Wilkins had more offensive boards (five) than the Hokies (three).
Hall, who played at Cape Henry Collegiate with Virginia Tech standout Chris Clarke, scored a career-best 17 points. Equally impressive, he matched his career high with nine rebounds. That marked the eighth time this season Hall, who battles taller opponents when Virginia uses a four-guard lineup, has grabbed at least five boards.
“It’s crazy,” Wilkins said of Hall’s rebounding prowess.
The Cavaliers’ defense often overshadows their offense, but they are formidable at that end, too. For the season, Virginia leads the ACC in field-goal percentage (49.5). Only two UVA players are averaging more than 10 points per game — Perrantes (12.0) and junior guard Marial Shayok (10.1) — but eight others have scored in double figures at least once this season.
“I think we’re evolving that way,” Bennett said. “Whether it’s Marial or Devon, London or Isaiah, there are just different guys [stepping up on offense]. Ty [Jerome] has done that the past few games. That balance is really important. I’m pleased with that up to this point, because you have to have that. It’s hard when you’re just a one-man band and everyone can key in.”
From a team that finished 29-8, Perrantes was the only returning player who averaged more than 4.6 points in 2015-16. Even so, he said Wednesday night, from “the jump, ever since we started practicing and during the summer, I knew we had weapons, from the top to the bottom. It just comes with game experience.”
As his younger teammates have gained experience, their confidence on offense has grown, Perrantes said. “Then we’re just building chemistry around it, and our defense is pretty good as of late. I think it’s just all starting to click at the right moment.”
Wilkins, who averaged only 4.6 points in 2015-16, is up to 7.4 this season. He’s scored in double figures in four of Virginia’s past five games.
“I’m looking to be a little bit more aggressive,” Wilkins said. “I sat down and talked with London and Coach Bennett before the Wake Forest game [last month], and they were telling me, `We need you to shoot that 15-footer to open things up for us.’ I’m just taking my shots when they’re there.”
Of Wilkins’ seven field goals Wednesday night, five came on midrange jumpers.
“He’s taking that shot real freely, and he’s working at it,” Bennett said. “We talked about that. Early on [opponents] were really laying off of our bigs, and you’re going to get those midrange shots.
“Any interior scoring like that from us is significant, because we’re different that way. We don’t always throw it inside. So I like it, and he continues to keep looking and feeling the game and having the right kind of decision-making with that. He’s not a guy that forces.”
Midnight was approaching when the `Hoos left JPJ late Wednesday. When they return to practice Thursday, their focus will be solely on Syracuse. But revenge is not their motivation as they prepare for their visit to the Carrier Dome.
“It’s just another game, really,” Perrantes said. “As hard as it is to say, it’s just another game.”