By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A look at the box score shows that five of his teammates scored more points Friday night than University of Virginia forward Isaiah Wilkins, and two others matched his total at John Paul Jones Arena.
No Cavalier played harder than Wilkins, and none means more to head coach Tony Bennett‘s program than the 6-7 senior from Atlanta.
“Isaiah only knows one way,” Bennett said after No. 13 Virginia closed non-conference play with an 82-48 win over Hampton.
“He embodies for us our pillar of passion. He is not lukewarm about anything, in terms of how he leads, how he plays and how he serves. He’s been a joy to coach, and I love how contagious that is for our players.”
Wilkins’ message to his teammates? “If you feed off my energy, I’ll feed off yours, and we can get it going,” he said.
Against the Pirates (5-9), Wilkins played a team-high 27 minutes and finished with nine rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots and two steals. He also scored six points, but that was probably the least of his contributions as the Wahoos improved to 11-1.
In the first half, Wilkins sprinted down the court and then dived on the floor to corral a loose ball. In the second half, he went into the first row in pursuit of another loose ball. Each time he earned a standing ovation from the Cavaliers’ fans.
“I’m glad the crowd recognized it,” Bennett said. “What he did in the first half with his hustle and his heart, that’s as good as it gets. That was my halftime talk. I said, `That is what it is about. That’s a hunger and a drive.’ I said, `Let’s all just hook our wagons to [Wilkins] and play with that kind of desire and that kind of will to just lay it on the line.’ ”
Earlier in the game, Wilkins raced down the court to block a breakaway layup attempt and then, at the other end, assisted guard Nigel Johnson on a 3-pointer that gave Virginia a 15-14 lead. Late in the first half, after the Cavaliers built a double-digit lead, Wilkins was forced to leave the game to have blood stopped from a cut on his arm, and redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite took (and made) two free throws in his stead.
“I’ve been doing that since I started playing basketball,” Wilkins said of his blue-collar work on the court.
Wilkins is one of the Cavaliers’ captains, along with senior guard Devon Hall and redshirt junior center Jack Salt, and the fire with which No. 21 plays “hypes everybody up,” sophomore guard Kyle Guy said.
“That’s what he does best. He’s the best in the country at it, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. He’s a tremendous player to play with.”
Guy led all scorers with 15 points, 12 of which came in the second half. Another sophomore guard, Ty Jerome, had 10 points, three assists and two steals for Virginia, and redshirt freshman swingman De’Andre Hunter scored 14 points in 19 minutes off the bench.
“I thought that was a good outing for him, and we needed that,” Bennett said of Hunter.
He’s been inconsistent this season, but Hunter sparkled at both ends against a Hampton team coming off a rout of Appalachian State. On defense, the 6-7 Hunter helped the `Hoos harass guards Malique Trent-Street and Jermaine Marrow into poor shooting nights. On offense, he hit 6 of 8 shots from the floor, including his lone 3-point attempt.
“It was fun,” said Hunter, who’s averaging 6.5 points per game. “I haven’t had a game like that in a while. It a fun overall experience.”
That was apparent from Hunter’s demeanor on the court. “He showed some emotion tonight,” Wilkins said.
Hunter said: “I was just really excited. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the holidays, but I was just really excited for my team.”
He smiled when told of Wilkins’ comment. “If you asked my teammates, they’d probably say I show no emotion,” Hunter said. “But I’m trying to be more emotional out there.”
Hampton’s starters included Akim Mitchell, whose brother, Akil, was a standout on a UVA team that won the ACC tournament in 2014. The younger Mitchell missed 4 for 5 shots from the floor Friday night, and he wasn’t the only Pirate to struggle against the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense.
Hampton shot 25.9 percent from the floor. Moreover, the `Hoos outrebounded the Pirates 46-32 and forced 14 turnovers.
“We got our butts kicked,” Hampton head coach Ed Joyner Jr. said.
Virginia has been on the winning end of many such games this season. Of the Cavaliers’ 11 victories, only one has been by fewer than 12 points: a 76-67 win over VCU in Richmond last month.
“We’ve played well,” Bennett said. “We’ve done what we’ve needed to do … I’m happy with what we did [in non-conference play], and I know the tests will come [in the ACC].”
Guy said: “I think we’re ready for the ACC, and I think practice is going really well for us, and we’re on a high right now and we just want to roll with it.”
THEY SAID IT: Postgame interviews, as usual, produced some interesting comments. They included:
* Bennett on Guy’s ability to get hot: “Kyle is unique because, as talented of a shooter as he is, I’ve never seen a guy who could either shoot an air ball or miss a shot and then all it takes is one shot [for him to get going].”
* Guy: “My teammates are always telling me to keep shooting and let it come to me, and that’s what I do. I try to do stay aggressive.”
* Joyner on the Cavaliers: “When you’re playing a team of that caliber, and you have to deal with that type of physicality for 40 minutes, if you’re not used to it every night, it’s a learning experience. When they got that separation [in the first half], it allowed them to get into their game, and they’re tough to handle for anybody in the country when they get into doing what they do well.”
* Wilkins: “I think we’re finding our identity. For me it’s in hustle plays and things like that. We’ll grow from these types of games. ACC play is a different beast. We’ve just got to be ready and accept the challenge.”
* Jerome on his second straight solid performance: “To be honest, my confidence is exactly where it was [during the stretch when] I didn’t shoot well and I didn’t play well. I said last game that my confidence never wavers. It’s just about coming out being aggressive and making the right decisions.”
WHAT’S NEXT? After a short holiday break, Virginia opens ACC play next Saturday against Boston College (9-3, 1-0). Tipoff is set for 2 p.m. at JPJ.
In the only ACC game played so far this season, BC stunned then-No. 1 Duke 89-84 at Conte Forum on Dec. 9.
To purchase tickets for the UVA-BC game, click here.
The Cavaliers have won six of their past seven games with the Eagles and lead the series 13-7.