By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The funk in which the University of Virginia men’s basketball team seemed to be mired as recently as last week now seems like a bad memory.
“It’s huge to go from that to this,” redshirt junior Devon Hall said Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers’ resurgence started Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C., where they ended a four-game losing streak, their longest skid since 2009-10, with a 70-55 victory over NC State.
Two nights later, at JPJ, UVA took on a more formidable opponent and triumphed again. Significant contributions from a long list of players — among them Hall, senior London Perrantes, junior Isaiah Wilkins and freshman Kyle Guy — helped the 23rd-ranked Wahoos upset fifth-ranked North Carolina 53-43 before a deafening crowd of 14,001.
“I told our guys before the game, `This is a golden opportunity for us … It’s going to be hard, but you know what you have to do,’ ” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said.
What the Cavaliers (20-9 overall, 10-7 ACC) did, first and foremost, was play stifling man-to-man defense. The 43 points are the fewest UNC has scored since a 47-40 loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 24, 1979.
The Tar Heels (25-6, 13-4), who have clinched the No. 1 seed in next week’s ACC tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y., love to run, and they came to Charlottesville averaging 86.4 points per game. Their previous low this season? Sixty-two points in a Jan. 28 loss to Miami.
“The most aggressive team won tonight,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said at JPJ. “The best team tonight won. Their defense was a lot stronger and more aggressive than our offense.”
Nine days earlier, in Chapel Hill, N.C., a much different game played out. At the Dean E. Smith Center, UNC pounded the Cavaliers 65-41, their most one-sided defeat since a 35-point loss at Tennessee on Dec. 30, 2013.
“I just think we took that so personally,” Guy said Monday night. “I think it was probably the best thing to happen to us, to get slapped in the face like that at Chapel Hill. We wanted to make a statement coming back home.”
The `Hoos succeeded in doing so, and now, with one regular-season game to play, they find themselves in a three-way tie (with Virginia Tech and Miami) for sixth place in the ACC.
In the final game at JPJ for Perrantes, the team’s only senior, UVA hosts Pittsburgh (15-14, 4-12) at noon Saturday.
“I love John Paul Jones Arena,” Perrantes said. “It’s an amazing atmosphere for the home team. I think it has helped us with a lot of our wins that we’ve gotten here. I hope [UVA supporters] come out again one more time for me and for the team.”
His penultimate game at JPJ marked the 129th career start for Perrantes, a new program record, and he made the clutch plays that have become his trademark. After UNC pulled to 40-39 with 9:24 remaining, Perrantes buried back-to-back 3-pointers. The Heels never drew closer than seven points thereafter.
“He’s a heck of a kid, a heck of a competitor, and I really enjoy watching him play when he is playing somebody else,” Williams said. “I don’t enjoy watching him play when he’s playing us.”
The 6-2 Perrantes is not known as a defensive stopper, but he drew the assignment of covering UNC’s leading scorer, 6-8 junior Justin Jackson, who had torched the Cavaliers in Chapel Hill.
Jackson finished with only seven points Monday night, nearly 12 below his average.
“I was looking forward to playing against him and against North Carolina, especially after how the first game went,” Perrantes said. “That was probably the most frustrated I’ve ever been just from a defensive standpoint. I felt like [Jackson] could get whatever he wanted in the first game, especially in the first half, and then when Coach told me that I was going to guard him I just was ready. I wanted to. I thought that I could do it, I believed in myself, the team believed in me, and I just knew that if we were going to win the game that I had to do what I had to do.”
Jackson missed 3 of 10 shots from the floor and was 1 of 6 from beyond the arc. For the game, UNC shot 35.4 percent from the floor and had 14 turnovers, mistakes that UVA turned into 18 points.
A few weeks back, the Cavaliers committed themselves to become a “better defensive team by the end of the year,” Bennett said. “We just have to be. We have to be better with our slides, tighter in our gaps, and we’re committing to that. Because we have to have it to stay in games and stay attached.”
To say the `Hoos bottomed out in Chapel Hill would not be a stretch. Virginia posted season lows in points (41), field goals (15) and field-goal percentage (27.8) in that loss.
“I think that when we were in Chapel Hill, we were a completely different team and we didn’t take it personally on the defensive end,” Hall said. “They were just getting anything they wanted — lobs, dunks, and wide-open jumpers — and we kind of were not ourselves. I think each guy individually took it personally deep down inside to step up his game.”
Perrantes said: “We knew defensively we were going to have to be at our best to win this game, regardless of how good offensively we were going to play, because [the Heels are] such a high-powered offensive team. So defensively, we knew that we were going to have to buckle down, play as hard as we could, and let our offense go. Obviously, we are off and on sometimes on offense, but our defense has to be there at all times, and it was there tonight.”
The Cavaliers shot only 32.2 percent from the floor Monday night, “which isn’t great,” Bennett acknowledged, “but our defense kept us attached and helped us find just enough offense at the right times.”
That offense often took the form of a timely 3-pointer. From beyond the arc, the `Hoos were 10 of 24. Guy hit five treys for the second straight game, and Perrantes made three from long range. Hall and freshman guard Ty Jerome each added a 3-pointer for the Cavaliers, who made more treys in the first eight minutes Monday night than they did in the entire 40 minutes in Chapel Hill.
“You gotta give them credit,” Williams said. “They made shots. I’m sure Tony’s not excited about shooting 32 percent, but they made big shots. I think it was five shots with less than four seconds on the shot clock, and four of them were 3s.”
In Chapel Hill, UNC outrebounded UVA 44-26. In the rematch, the Cavaliers totaled only three rebounds fewer than the Heels. The 6-3 Guy pulled down a career-best six boards. The 6-7 Wilkins grabbed a game-high nine rebounds and had four of UVA’s eight blocked shots.
Not yet fully recovered from strep throat, Wilkins came off the bench Monday night and played only 22 minutes. But his hustle typified the Cavaliers’ grit. In the final 95 seconds, as Carolina tried to mount a last-ditch comeback, Wilkins came up with three offensive rebounds.
“He gave us everything he could, and we needed all of it,” Perrantes said. “He’s a true fighter.”
So is Guy, who in his second start as a Cavalier finished with 17 points. He had 19 at NC State. He also had a season-high four assists Monday night and defended well.
“Very good performance for a first-year in that kind of setting,” Bennett said, “and we needed it all.”
Guy, who’s from Indianapolis, said he plays “with a chip on my shoulder. I know my teammates have my back. They believe in me, and I believe in them. Growing up, I was a scrawny little skinny kid and kids tried to pick on me, so I always played with a chip on my shoulder. I carried that to the college level.”
In 32 minutes, Guy had no turnovers Monday night. The Cavaliers had only four in all, and that ball security helped them overcome a poor shooting night.
Inside the 3-point arc, Virginia made only 9 of 35 shots. Perhaps the most memorable of those field goals came late in the game, when Guy fed 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jack Salt inside. Salt came in averaging a modest 3.7 points per game, but his shot bounced around the rim before dropping through to make it 48-39. The ensuing roar from the fans threatened to shake the building.
“We needed it all,” Bennett said. “We got some good rolls, and the crowd was incredible. That’s one of the better ones we’ve had. They saw us lay it on the line.”
In the final seconds, the fans raised the familiar chant of “U-V-A! U-V-A!” In eight seasons under Bennett, the `Hoos are 111-24 at JPJ, and they’ll look to improve that record Saturday against Pitt.
The regular-season finale represents another opportunity for the Cavaliers to avenge a painful loss. On Jan. 4, the Panthers defeated UVA 88-76 in overtime in Pittsburgh. Above all, though, Saturday will be a celebration of Perrantes’ remarkable career at UVA.
“It’s hard to put into words what he means to this team,” Wilkins said. “He’s a brother for life. That’s what this program does.”
The Senior Day ceremony will start around 11:40 a.m. Saturday. A few tickets remain for the game. For information, click here.