Jan. 15, 2018

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — National rankings are not a topic University of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett discusses often with his team. Even so, the Cavaliers are fully aware that, over the past two months, they’ve gone from unranked in the polls to top-five status.

“You’re just trying to keep a humble mindset when it comes to those things,” fifth-year senior Devon Hall said Sunday night after No. 3 UVA’s 68-51 win over ACC rival NC State at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Of course we’re proud of it, but we just want to keep working hard and keep driving.”

After a week in which they extended their winning streak to eight with victories over Syracuse and NC State, the Wahoos (16-1 overall, 5-0 ACC) are likely to rise to No. 2 when the next Associated Press poll is released Monday.

Such rankings at this stage of the season aren’t especially significant, Bennett knows. Still, he’s happy that his players are seeing their hard work rewarded. Nothing has been handed to them.

“They’ve earned it, because they’ve fought their way and they’ve won it,” Bennett said. “And the message was, `What you’ve earned and worked for, don’t give it back. You’re in a good spot because you’ve done it your way and you’ve had to go get it, and it wasn’t like you were just crowned at the start of the year.’

“So from that standpoint, they’ve been a joy to coach and I’m happy to see that success. But I also know what it means. It doesn’t matter. It’s [about] the next game.”

Challenges await the Cavaliers. Of their next seven games — all against ACC foes — five will be on the road. UVA played four of its first five conference at games at JPJ.

“That’s quite a stretch, and we did protect home court,” Bennett said. “It’s like in golf. It’s like getting a birdie in this league when you win on the road.”

Bennett said he didn’t realize until recently that Virginia’s ACC schedule was front-loaded with so many home games.

“If we can have our next four of five [at JPJ too], I’d be happy,” Bennett said, smiling, “but I know what goes around comes around, so we’re going to have to pay those back. But the league on the road is challenging. You can see that. The numbers are bearing that out.”

Dating to last season, the `Hoos have won 14 straight games at JPJ.

“I think it’s always good to capitalize when we have home-court advantage,” sophomore guard Kyle Guy said. “We don’t like to lose in front of our fans, so we keep pushing the gas to the pedal and keep doing what we do.”

The Wolfpack, in its first season under head coach Kevin Keatts, was looking for its third straight upset of a ranked opponent. NC State knocked off then-No. 2 Duke 96-85 on Jan. 6 and then edged No. 19 Clemson 78-77 on Thursday night. But UVA proved to be an insurmountable challenge for the Pack at JPJ.

NCSU (12-6, 2-3) came in averaging 83.1 points per game and had five players averaging at least 10.2 points apiece. Against the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense, Torin Dorn scored 16 points and Lavar Batts Jr. added 12. No other State player had more than nine points.

“I know everybody talks about the Pack Line,” Keatts said, “but they have at least three or four guys who are very good individual defenders. They do a good job of sitting down [on defense], they can keep you in front, and then obviously once you get by those guys, they do a tremendous job as a team.”

Especially noteworthy was UVA’s effort against Omer Yurtseven, a 7-0, 245-pound sophomore who scored 16 points against Duke and 29 against Clemson. With 6-7 senior Isaiah Wilkins leading the way, the `Hoos held Yurtseven to six points. He came in shooting 73.3 percent (11 for 15) from 3-point range but missed his only two attempts from beyond arc.

“I’m smaller than he is, obviously,” Wilkins said, “so I tried to fight that post-up and make his catches tough and make him put it on the floor.”

At the other end, the Cavaliers operated with ruthless efficiency, shooting 56.1 percent from the floor. They were 8 of 14 from 3-point range and 14 of 16 from the line. Virginia went ahead to stay on a left-handed floater by the right-handed Guy at the 17:02 mark of the first half.

The victory was UVA’s sixth straight over NC State.

This has been a stellar final college season for Hall, who redshirted in 2013-14, and he hit another milestone Sunday night. The former Cape Henry Collegiate star made 7 of 9 shots from the floor, including 4 of 5 from beyond the arc, and sank all seven of his free throws to finish with 25 points — five more than his previous career high.

“You talk about efficient,” Bennett said.

Keatts, a former postgraduate coach at Hargrave Military Academy, about 120 miles south of Charlottesville, came into the game worried most about the Cavaliers’ starting guards: Hall, Guy and sophomore Ty Jerome. It wasn’t one of Jerome’s best games — he had a season-high six turnovers along with six assists — but Keatts’ concerns proved to be well-founded.

“Every time we made a little run, those guys made plays, especially when you look at Devon Hall,” said Keatts, who grew up in Lynchburg. “He did a tremendous job and I thought he scored at all three levels. He shot it behind the arc, he made pull-up jump shots, and he also got to the line seven times.”

Hall, who shoots his jumpers and free throws left-handed, prefers to use his other hand around the basket.

“I write with my right hand,” he said. “I throw with my right hand, so I just finish better with my right hand.”

Guy scored 11 of his 17 points in the second half, when he hit three treys, and Wilkins had 10 points to complement his six rebounds, two assists and two steals. The crowd of 14,317 had much to cheer all night, but its loudest applause came with 4:43 left in the first half. That’s when Wilkins, after catching a cross-court pass from reserve point guard Nigel Johson, drew a foul while burying a 3-pointer from the left corner.

Wilkins made the free throw to complete what he said was the first four-point play of his career — at any level.

“I was excited, I’m not going to lie,” Wilkins said.

The trey was only Wilkins’ eighth (in 24 attempts) as a Cavalier, but he’s become a reliable midrange shooter.

“Zay’s worked at it,” Bennett said. “Every day he’s working at that mid-range shot or stepping out and hitting the three. I think that’s definitely there, and he’s smart. He knows if it feels right, he’ll shoot it. If he doesn’t like it, he won’t. Again, I trust his judgment on that.”

Sitting behind the home bench Sunday night was former UVA star Mike Scott, now a sharp-shooting forward for the NBA’s Washington Wizards.

“Maybe he’s good luck,” Wilkins said of Scott. “He has to come to more games.”

Bennett smiled as he recounted a postgame conversation with Scott, who played for Keatts at Hargrave.

“I’m so proud of Mike and obviously the career he’s having,” Bennett said. “After the game he said, `Isaiah should look for that shot more.’ I said, `You mean, like you, Mike?’ ”

BIG LIFT: Nigel Johnson, who played only three minutes against Syracuse, had a much larger role against NC State. In 25 minutes off the bench, he contributed four points, five assists and one steal and had no turnovers.

Equally important was the defensive pressure the 6-1 Johnson applied.

“I liked how he went down the floor and put some heat on the ball,” Bennett said. “At times I thought that made them start their offense out a little further [out] on that first pass, and then that gets the clock going against them.”

Wilkins agreed. “That can go unnoticed, but that was huge. That took eight seconds off the shot clock, and that’s less [time] for us to defend.”

PHYSICAL PRESENCE: Jack Salt‘s screens have become the stuff of legend inside the UVA program. A 6-10, 250-pound redshirt junior, Salt doesn’t score much, but he specializes in helping his teammates get open for shots.

Never was that talent more apparent than in the second half Sunday night, when NC State guard Lavar Batts Jr., a 6-2, 170-pound freshman, ran into a jarring, but legal, Salt pick in the backcourt. Batts went down, and Jerome continued up the court with the ball and passed to Hall, whose wide-open 3-pointer from the right corner made it 45-25.

Running into a Salt screen, Hall said, is like running into “a brick wall. Jack is extremely strong, so if he hits you with one, you’re going to feel it. He takes pride in setting screens like that.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Virginia’s next two games are on the road: Thursday night in Atlanta, against Georgia Tech (10-7, 3-1), and next Sunday night in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, against Wake Forest (8-9, 1-4).

The Cavaliers’ next game at JPJ is Tuesday, Jan. 23, against Clemson (15-2, 4-1). A limited number of tickets for that game will go on sale Friday at 5 p.m. online at VirginiaSports.com/tickets.

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