Nov. 28, 2017

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — From a grueling stretch that started on Thanksgiving Day at Barclays Center and ended late Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team emerged tired but unbowed.

The Cavaliers will return to practice tomorrow, but today they rest.

They earned their break, defeating Vanderbilt and Rhode Island to capture the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, New York, and then outlasting Wisconsin in a Big Ten/ACC Challenge Game in Charlottesville.

“What’s it been, three games in five days?” UVA guard Devon Hall said. “And we played back-to-back [in Brooklyn]. It’s tough. We played three good teams in a row, so just being able to sustain the effort level and the energy level and all that is tough, but you have to find a way to battle it out.”

In what, as predicted, turned out to be a low-possession, low-scoring game, the 18th-ranked Wahoos defeated the Badgers 49-37 on Monday night. Sophomore Kyle Guy led UVA with 17 points, and Hall, a fifth-year senior, added 16 points in only 20 minutes.

In each of its first six games, UVA (7-0) scored at least 60 points. The Badgers (3-4) came in averaging 75 points per game.

“You could just see both teams were tired,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “It was a very physical game with a lot of screens set and [tough defense], and obviously that showed up in some of the missed shots.”

The Cavaliers did not attempt a free throw, but they outrebounded Wisconsin 39-30 and shot 38.3 percent from the floor.

At the other end, 6-10, 250-pound center Jack Salt led a defensive effort that limited Wisconsin’s All-America candidate, 6-10 Ethan Happ, to 14 points and eight rebounds. The Badgers made only 31.3 percent of their field-goal attempts.

“I thought it was terrific,” Bennett said of his team’s defense on Happ. “I have so much respect for him as a player, watching him on film and the things he does. I thought individually guys did a good job on him, and then collectively. Jack was real aggressive … With a player like [Happ], you just try to make him earn all game long, and I thought the guys did a great job.”

Virginia broke the game open with a 12-0 run in the second half. With 10:29 left, Hall scored to give UVA its biggest lead, at 42-26. The Cavaliers wouldn’t score again until the 3:36 mark, when Hall’s 3-pointer make it 45-33, but Wisconsin failed to capitalize on that drought.

All four of the Badgers’ losses have come against ranked opponents.

“We were able to close the gap there at halftime,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said, “but you have to make shots against Virginia with how they load the ball and how they make it hard on the block with the double teams and how they rotate out of that.”

Gard and Bennett worked together as assistant coaches at Wisconsin for two years, and they remain close. As tipoff approached Monday night, they met in front of the scorer’s table and exchanged warm greetings.

“I have the utmost respect for Greg and that program and all it stands for,” said Bennett, whose father, Dick, guided Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000.

This marked the third time in Bennett’s nine seasons in Charlottesville that Virginia and Wisconsin have been paired in the Challenge. The Cavaliers are 2-1 in those matchups. The loss came in 2013, when the Badgers prevailed 48-38 at JPJ. The teams’ latest meeting followed a similar script.

“Coach Bennett told us in the locker room before we went out that it’s going to be the type of game where you just gotta grind it out,” said Hall, who made 7 of 10 shots from the floor.

Bennett said: “You know it’s going to be a battle [against Wisconsin].”

The Cavaliers’ dominance on the backboards helped them win that battle Monday night. Senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, the MVP of the NIT Season Tip-Off, grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds Monday night. Salt had eight boards, and 6-9 redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite had five.

Between them, Salt and Diakite pulled down eight offensive rebounds.

“That can break your back in a way,” Bennett said, “when you’re guarding and then all of a sudden you’ve got to guard again and again. And even though we weren’t scoring, we got some good shots and struggled to put them in, but those offensive rebounds were significant for us.”

MULTI-DIMENSIONAL: The 6-2 Guy is best known for his outside shooting — he’s hit 43 percent of his 3-point attempts this season — but he was only 1 for 6 from long range Monday night. He was 7 for 11 from inside the arc.

“He was getting to the rim,” Bennett said. “He’s done that [this season], not just tonight. I think that’s important. People are really going to [blanket Guy on the perimeter]. They don’t want to give him much room.”

Guy is “deceptively athletic and creative,” Bennett said, “and I think the strength that he added has helped him absorb a few more forearms when he’s driving, or bumps at the rim. So that’s important. Again, when your shot’s not on and you can score in other ways, that’s the completeness you look for.”

Defending Guy is a challenge, Gard said. “He’s constantly on the move. If you’ve ever watched great shooters, they’re constantly [moving]. As I told the team, he’ll try to hypnotize you, think he’s not involved with his play, lull you to sleep a little bit, but then he’ll bust off a screen. But I thought we made him work … I didn’t think we did a great job on Hall, especially early. He got going, got some confidence.”

STEADY PROGRESS: For all his size and strength, Salt has not always been a productive rebounder at UVA. But the redshirt junior from New Zealand has pulled down at least eight boards in each of his past three games.

“He’s just getting better,” Bennett said.

On offense, Salt sets more picks than he attempts shots, but he was 2 for 2 from the floor Monday night. For the season, he’s averaging 3.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He’s most valuable, though, in the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense.

“Jack and Isaiah, they anchor our team defensively,” Bennett said.

THEY SAID IT: Interviews followed the game, which ended around 11 p.m. Among the highlights:

* Hall: “I think we’re still in the midst of trying to forge our identity as a team. It’s early in the season, so we’re trying to make sure everybody is on the same page in terms of knowing what type of team we are.”

* Guy on the wins over Vanderbilt, Rhode Island and Wisconsin: “I think that’s a testament to the coaching staff, getting us ready for three very different opponents, and then a testament to our guys being disciplined enough to execute the game plan. So, I think that’s a sign of maturity. With us trying to find our identity, we still have the ability to execute, and that’s pretty phenomenal.”

* Guy on UVA’s offense: “I think we all need to be a little more consistent, and that goes for probably every team in America. We’ve seen a lot of guys shine on different nights, so I really think that says a lot. If I’m having an off-shooting night, someone else can go get a bucket. Devon has been very consistent. I think we have a lot of people who can score and when we find our identity we’ll be a little smoother.”

* Gard: “It was a great experience for our young guys, our freshmen, the four that played here tonight. [Virginia is] the most physical and defensive sound team we’ve played. You can tell [players] and teach and look at film all you want, but for them to live through it, I think that will help them grow a little bit faster.”

* Gard on coaching against Bennett: “He’s a tremendous friend. His family has been great to me. His dad’s been terrific to me during my time as the [Badgers’] head coach, and I have great respect for Tony. We had a great two years together when we were on staff [at Wisconsin] … and he’s obviously done a terrific job here. This game will help us.”

WHAT’S NEXT? The Cavaliers have two games left before breaking for final exams. The first is Saturday at noon, against Lehigh (3-3) at John Paul Jones Arena.

Tickets remain for the game, starting at $15. To purchase tickets, click here.

Virginia leads its series with Lehigh 2-0.

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