Jan. 6, 2018

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In Tony Bennett‘s nine seasons as head men’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia, there have been so many memorable victories by his teams, so many fantastic performances by his players, it’s become difficult to rank them.

Saturday afternoon brought more magic to John Paul Jones Arena. In a nationally televised battle of top-15 teams, No. 8 Virginia dispatched defending NCAA champion North Carolina 61-49 before an amped-up crowd of 14,401 that included the building’s namesake.

“We’ve got to keep working, but I like what I see so far,” Bennett said. “How can I not?”

The victory was the Cavaliers’ fifth straight over the Tar Heels at JPJ. In each of their past two meetings in Charlottesville, UVA has held UNC to fewer than 50 points.

This year, the 12th-ranked Heels (12-4, 1-2) came in averaging 84.9 points per game, only to again experience the frustration of facing the Pack Line defense that’s the trademark of Bennett’s teams.

The Wahoos (14-1, 3-0) led for the final 29 minutes and 56 seconds Saturday. Redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite put them ahead for good, taking a slick pass from fifth-year senior Devon Hall and throwing down a vicious dunk that made it 15-13.

“This was a big ol’ butt-kicking. That’s all it was,” said UNC’s Hall of Fame coach, Roy Williams. “Their defense was a million times stronger than our offense … I told Tony, it’s about as good a defensive game as we’ve had anybody play against us, maybe ever, but definitely in a long time.”

The `Hoos, who stretched their home winning streak to 12 games, forced three shot-clock violations Saturday. With each one the decibel level rose inside the arena.

The Heels’ problems didn’t end there. They had a season-high 19 turnovers, mistakes that UVA turned into 25 points. Three times in the first half a Cavalier came up with a steal near midcourt and dribbled in for a crowd-pleasing slam: first the 6-9 Diakite, then 6-1 Nigel Johnson and finally the 6-5 Hall.

“We did force some turnovers, and those were big for us to get momentum,” Bennett said, “because North Carolina can score in bunches. Any of those X-factor points make a huge difference.”

Those weren’t the only dunks for the Cavaliers. In the second half, after sophomore guard Ty Jerome missed a 3-point attempt, redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter ran down the rebound. Hunter then drove from the left corner and soared for a one-handed jam over UNC guard Joel Berry II, pushing Virginia’s lead to 45-36 and bringing the home fans to their feet yet again.

“I just knew I had to track down the rebound and make something out of it,” Hunter said. “I saw Joel Berry and I was hoping he would jump. I knew once I got the ball that I was going to dunk, so I was hoping he would jump up so I could dunk on him.”

The 6-7 Hunter, who scored a team-high 14 points Wednesday night in UVA’s 78-52 rout of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, took another step forward Saturday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Hunter totaled 10 points and seven rebounds, and Bennett kept him in the game as the `Hoos kept the Heels at bay in the final minutes.

“I thought he gave us a big lift today,” said Bennett, whose record as the Cavaliers’ coach is 202-84.

When Bennett employs a smaller lineup, Hunter moves from small forward to power forward, and that’s where he spent most of his time against UNC. He could not have looked much more comfortable.

“I’m encouraging him to try to exploit those mismatches, just because I know it’s harder to guard a perimeter guy who’s playing the 4,” UVA senior forward Isaiah Wilkins said. “I just tell him to attack. He seems to have found his groove right now, which is good. I’m happy for him.”

After the Heels trimmed their deficit from 11 points to six, Hunter made one of the game’s biggest plays, coolly burying a turnaround jumper to make it 56-48 with 6:38 left. His basket started a 7-0 run that ended with Jerome’s 3-pointer from the left corner.

“I thought that was a big moment,” Bennett said of Hunter’s shot.

Asked if he would have had the confidence to attempt that shot in such a pressure situation early in the season, Hunter paused and then smiled.

“Honestly, no, I probably wouldn’t have,” he said. “Now I feel a lot more comfortable in that spot and taking those shots.”

As has so often been the case in 2017-18, the Cavaliers received important contributions from multiple players. Sophomore guard Kyle Guy didn’t shoot well — he was 2 for 10 from the field — but his teammates came through.

“Our balance has been great this year,” said Jerome, who had eight points and five assists.

Hall was 4 for 4 from 3-point range and had seven assists, two steals, two rebounds and one blocked shot to go along with his team-high 16 points.

“He’s always aggressive,” Jerome said of Hall. “I love that about him.”

“He puts the work in,” Bennett said.

So, of course, does Wilkins, one of the nation’s elite defenders. He had six points, six rebounds and three blocks and hounded UNC forward Luke Maye into a forgettable offensive game. Maye, who entered as the Heels’ leading scorer (18.1 ppg), was 2 for 10 from the floor and finished with six points.

“Zay likes challenges defensively, for sure,” Bennett said.

Wilkins agreed. “I take all of these match-ups seriously,” he said. “I didn’t want him to score. I was trying to frustrate him … and went from there.”

Berry, who came in averaging 17.9 ppg, led UNC with 17 points but missed 10 of 17 shots from the floor.

“We talked about matchups yesterday, and [UVA’s coaches] said Joel Berry and Luke Maye are a great duo,” Jerome said. “And then we look and we’ve got Dev on Joel Berry and Isaiah’s starting on Luke Maye. That puts us in a great position, I think, with two of the best defenders in the league guarding two of the best offensive players in the league.”

Virginia’s captains — Hall, Wilkins and redshirt junior center Jack Salt — form the heart of one of the nation’s premier defenses.

“Isaiah understands, Jack understands, Devon understands,” Bennett said. “Ty and Kyle have made strides in that direction.”

Jerome and Guy may not be lockdown defenders, but they’ve improved dramatically at that end of the court. They had no choice, Jerome said.

“That’s what we do,” Jerome said. “Defense comes first here. Our coaches preach that every day. If we’re not working as hard as we can on defense, we’re not playing, so we don’t have the opportunity to play offense. Of course we take pride in it every day.”

The Cavaliers take pride in their rebounding too, but they struggled in that area Saturday, losing the battle to Carolina 42-30. The Heels pulled down 19 boards at the offensive end but had only 12 second-chance points to show for their work.

Bennett wasn’t pleased with his team’s work on the glass, “but how can you fault the collective team defense?” he said.

THEY SAID IT: Players and coaches had much to discuss after Virginia won for the 43rd time in its past 47 conference home games. Among the comments:

* Bennett on the atmosphere at JPJ: “The crowd was great. I loved it. This place has become special.”

* Wilkins on the Cavaliers’ defense, which has forced 35 turnovers in the past two games: “There’s a big emphasis on ball pressure right now.”

* Williams to reporters when asked about UVA’s decisive edge in points off turnovers: “We can’t beat you guys if you outscore us 25-3.”

* Williams on UNC’s offensive boards: “That many offensive rebounds, to only get 12 points out of it, that’s not very good.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Virginia’s three-game homestand continues Tuesday night. At 8 o’clock, UVA meets Syracuse (12-4, 1-2) at JPJ in a game the ACC Network will televise.

The Orange gave up a stickback with 2.6 seconds left Saturday and lost 51-49 to Notre Dame at the Carrier Dome.

Virginia concludes its homestand next Sunday with a game against NC State. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m.

To purchase tickets for the Syracuse and NCSU games, click here.

Syracuse has won two straight over UVA, each time rallying in the second half to win. But Wilkins said those games won’t have a bearing Tuesday night.

“Every year is a new year,” Wilkins said.

Jerome said: “It’ll be a good test, and I’m excited for it.”

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