By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RALEIGH, N.C. — University of Virginia guard Darius Thompson, slated to start for the first time since Dec. 28, was too sick to play Saturday and watched the game from the visitors’ bench at PNC Arena.
A bad back slowed UVA’s starting center, Jack Salt, whose discomfort was apparent in his 22 minutes on the court.
And then there was Isaiah Wilkins. A case of strep throat ended his streak of 44 consecutive starts, but the junior forward still managed to contribute 20 valuable minutes off the bench.
“We knew we were short-handed, and we just had to fight through it,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
Little came easily for the 18th-ranked Cavaliers against NC State, but they were a happy — and relieved — group when the final horn sounded Saturday afternoon. With a 70-55 win over the Wolfpack, the Wahoos emphatically ended their first four-game losing streak since 2009-10, Bennett’s first season as their head coach.
“We’ve got a big game on Monday, so we’re really, really glad to get one under our belt,” Devon Hall said.
Last Saturday night, in its most one-sided loss in years, UVA fell 65-41 to North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The rematch is Monday at 7 p.m., when Virginia (19-9, 9-7) meets eighth-ranked UNC (25-5, 13-3) at John Paul Jones Arena.
“It’s still kind of fresh in our mind,” Hall said of the loss at the Dean E. Smith Center, where the `Hoos were 2 of 20 from 3-point range.
Bennett said: “We know [how good] Carolina is, and we gotta get back, get some guys healthy and come at it better than we did down there.”
Of UVA’s players, Hall, a 6-5 redshirt junior, and London Perrantes, a 6-2 senior, have been in Bennett’s program the longest, and they provided veteran leadership and much-needed production Saturday.
Hall, who played power forward in the Cavaliers’ four-guard lineup, scored a career-best 18 points and matched his career high with nine rebounds.
Perrantes broke out of a prolonged shooting slump, hitting 3 of 5 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. He finished with 16 points and 10 assists — his third double-double as a Cavalier — and also had three rebounds and two steals.
The assists were a season high for Perrantes, who made his 128th career start Saturday.
“I just knew that I needed to get other people involved,” Perrantes said. “The way that [NC State] played defense, it was easy for me to get other people involved, and obviously [teammates] knocking down shots made it easier for me too.
“I think it was just whatever the defense gave me, I was taking.”
In the game that started the Cavaliers’ skid, they scored 78 points in an overtime loss at Virginia Tech. In their next three games, however, they averaged only 48 points and shot miserably from the floor.
And so “just seeing shots go down was huge [Saturday],” Perrantes said.
Nearly 10 minutes passed before the `Hoos made their first 3-pointer against NC State (15-15, 4-13). From that point, though, they rarely missed. For the game, UVA actually shot better from 3-point range (68.8 percent) than from the line (59.1 percent).
“Coach always tell us, `If you’re open, you’ve got to shoot. Don’t ever pass up wide-open jump shots. Don’t ever pass up good looks, because we’ve got the guys to knock down shots,’ ” Hall said.
Nobody was hotter Saturday than UVA freshman guard Kyle Guy, who made 5 of 7 shots from beyond the arc and scored 19 points, his high in an ACC game.
“I think he kind of single-handedly got our rhythm back for us,” Wilkins said.
Guy came off the bench to play a career-high 35 minutes Saturday. In his previous three games, he’d totaled 26 minutes, and he played only two Monday night in Virginia’s overtime loss to ACC rival Miami at JPJ.
“If I play two minutes or 20 minutes, it really doesn’t matter to me,” Guy said. “I’m going to come in with the same mindset and play as hard as I can and as free as I can.”
Thanks in no small part to Guy’s four first-half 3-pointers, two of which came during a 15-0 run, Virginia led 35-21 at the half.
For a team that had been mired in a shooting slump, Guy’s timing could not have been better.
“The last two games he hasn’t played much,” classmate Ty Jerome said, “and the fact that he’s able to stay ready and shoot like that today speaks to his mental [toughness] as much as his physical talent. That was phenomenal.”
Bennett said: “To see Kyle get going and make some shots — he really loosened it up — was very important.”
For long stretches Saturday, Virginia had three freshmen on the floor together. Redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite went 3 of 4 from the line. Jerome and Guy made larger contributions.
The 6-5 Jerome, in his first college start, finished with five points, six rebounds and four steals. The rebounds and steals were season highs for him.
“I thought Ty and Kyle did a great job,” Bennett said.
Had Thompson and Wilkins been healthy, they would started alongside Salt, Hall and Perrantes, but Bennett was always going to play Guy and Jerome extensively against NC State.
“The plan was definitely to go in that direction, to get them more minutes, and they were forced into it,” Bennett said.
Especially impressive to Bennett was the freshmen’s play at the defensive end.
“They came of age a little bit,” Bennett said, “being smart, being in the right spots.”
On an afternoon when NC State freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr., a projected lottery pick in the next NBA draft, made only 4 of 14 attempts from the floor, the Pack shot 32.1 percent.
“We really did a good job on the defensive end,” Hall said. “We were able to get good stops and keep guys in front of us and keep guys out of the lane.”
Virginia has lost several games this season after blowing big second-half leads, and assistant coach Brad Soderberg challenged the players at halftime Saturday.
“I’ve never seen him so fired up,” Guy said. “He came in and he said, `We’ve got to make sure we still have our foot on the gas pedal. We’ve been here before and we’ve had big leads and sort of watched them diminish a little bit.’ It was good for him to jump on us like that so we knew that we couldn’t do that.”
The Cavaliers led by 19 points early in the second half. But the Wolfpack rallied, and two free throws by Terry Henderson cut UVA’s lead to 59-51 with 5:30 remaining.
The `Hoos didn’t panic. Perrantes buried a 3-pointer at the 5:03 mark to it 62-51. Then, after a defensive stop by Virginia, Hall missed a shot but grabbed the rebound and scored on a putback to make it 64-51.
“It always comes down to that,” Bennett said: big plays being made in clutch situations.
And so the Cavaliers came away with their 10th straight regular-season win over the Wolfpack. Virginia will have to play better, in all likelihood, if it wants to upset UNC on Monday night, but Bennett had reason to be proud of his players’ effort Saturday.
For the third time this season, Hall finished one rebound shy of his first career double-double. But that hardly lessened his impact in this game.
“He’s got some leadership in him,” Bennett said, “and I see him trying to urge and pull and lead the team along, with Isaiah and London. He’s been very important.”
The same is true, of course, for Wilkins, who leads the team in rebounds and hustle plays.
“This morning I didn’t think I was going to play, and then I got here and warmed up and figured I would give it a try,” Wilkins said. “And I felt like we needed a little energy, and I have the ability to do that, so I just got out there and played as hard as I could.”
Perrantes said: “Zay gave us a good lift. We’d take all we could get from him today.”