Jan. 24, 2018

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’ll spend the rest of the week preparing for his team’s highly anticipated visit to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. On Tuesday night, however, University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett wanted to savor the masterpiece his players had just authored at John Paul Jones Arena.

Even by the Cavaliers’ lofty standards, they were extraordinary when Clemson had the basketball.

“I thought in the second half, that’s some of the best defense we’ve played,” Bennett said after No. 2 Virginia’s 61-36 win over the No. 18 Tigers.

Facing the Wahoos’ Pack Line defense, Clemson shot 31.9 percent from the floor. The Tigers had more turnovers (19) than field goals (15). The 36 points are the fewest UVA has ever allowed against a ranked opponent.

Virginia (19-1, 8-0) held the Tigers (16-4, 5-3) scoreless for the final 6:20 of the first half. During one stretch of the second half, Clemson went more than seven minutes without a point.

“That was fun,” UVA guard Devon Hall said. “I’m not going to lie. That was fun.”

The victory was the 11th straight for the ‘Hoos, who are unbeaten at JPJ this season. UVA fans, unhappy with the officiating early in the game, were in full voice throughout, and the volume inside JPJ seemed to grow as the night went on.

“The crowd got revved up,” Bennett said. “It was beautiful to hear that.”

His Clemson counterpart, Brad Brownell, did not enjoy the Cavaliers’ defense — or the atmosphere at JPJ — nearly as much. With a 9-0 run, the Tigers took a 20-14 lead in the first half. But nothing came easily for Clemson against the ‘Hoos thereafter.

“When they can lock into you, it’s hard to execute good offense, especially in this building,” Brownell said, “because this building, it’s a little bit like playing at Clemson [in] football.”

He smiled. “We raise hell on third down. You come down there, don’t get in third down, because you’re probably going to have a delay-of-game penalty. I think that’s about the only thing we didn’t have tonight: a delay-of-game penalty.”

That 6-7 senior Isaiah Wilkins, one of the nation’s premier defenders, played only three minutes in the second half made UVA’s performance that much more impressive.

Wilkins, who hurt his back during the game, returned to the bench after being examined by UVA’s medical staff twice in the second half. He could have played again if needed, Bennett said.

“When I looked at the bench, he wanted to go back in,” Bennett said, “but why would we do that if we didn’t need to?” Hall, a 6-5 fifth-year senior, scored a game-high 14 points and was one of four Cavaliers with five rebounds each. (The others were Wilkins, 6-10 redshirt junior Jack Salt and 6-5 sophomore Ty Jerome.)

Jerome, who played only seven minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls, led the ‘Hoos with a career-high four steals and three assists. He also hit two long 3-pointers after intermission. Another standout for Virginia was 6-9 redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite, who had a season-high three blocked shots.

Diakite’s shot-blocking makes opposing players “think twice” about shooting, Bennett said, and he contributed in other ways against Clemson, too.

“He was real quick on ball screens,” Bennett said. “A couple times they tried to use a ball screen, and he just bounced ’em out, got back, and he was moving very fast. He was fresh and alive.

“I thought he brought great energy, great life, and his quickness showed. This is the soundest he’s been defensively. Sometimes he’s had a couple great plays, and then he’s gotten out of position. But I liked the way he was moving and thinking tonight.”

For the Tigers, this was their first game without Donte Grantham, a 6-8 senior who suffered a season-ending knee injury Saturday against Notre Dame. Grantham was averaging 14.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.

“I think they were just a little out of sync [without Grantham]. That’s a hard blow,” Bennett said.

“But in saying that, I don’t want to take away from what I thought our guys did, especially in the second half defensively. I thought they just were so active with their hands. Mamadi gave us a great lift and everything was contested, and it was physical. They kind of punched us in the face a little bit in the first half. We were a little sped up, a little stretched out. Then we righted the ship and played some of our better defense.”

A bigger challenge awaits the Cavaliers this weekend. At 2 p.m. Saturday, in a game CBS will televise, UVA meets No. 4 Duke (18-2, 6-2) in Durham, North Carolina.

Cameron Indoor Stadium is the only ACC arena in which the ‘Hoos have not won during Bennett’s nine seasons as their head coach.

“This game Saturday everyone circles at the beginning of the year,” said UVA sophomore guard Kyle Guy, who scored 12 points against Clemson. “It’s going to be a really good test for us and we’re really looking forward to it. Our defense was great this second half, so it’s good momentum-booster going into that game.”

Much will be made of this top-5 matchup, Bennett knows, but “what it’ll come down to is what it comes down to every game. It’s not even who the best team is. It’s who plays the best [that day].”

So far in ACC play, the Cavaliers have been that team every time they’ve taken the floor.

“I think there’s a special synergy with our group,” Bennett said. “There’s individual talent, but I love that saying: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We have some really great parts, but there’s something going on with that synergy. You saw it collectively on the defensive end and then even offensively [against Clemson]. Guys are understanding their roles and making big shots at the right time.”

THEY SAID IT: Their seventh straight win over Clemson moved the ‘Hoos to 8-0 in ACC play for the first time since 1980-81. Among the postgame comments:

* Bennett on Jerome’s impact: “His hands were active. You look at him and say, ‘How quick is he?’ But he’s got quick hands and very good anticipation, and he’s big, and then offensively those shots were daggers. He and Kyle got it going.”

* Guy on the Cavaliers’ affinity for defending: “We grind every day and work on defense. and we preach it. When we get back and we rebound and do our job, it’s hard for anybody to score on us. So, when we’re hitting on all cylinders, it’s actually really fun to play defense like that.”

* Jerome on UVA’s defensive prowess: “It is so exciting, because so many people don’t appreciate it. So many people don’t talk about it, don’t talk about us at all, and that’s fine. We don’t care. People call us boring and this and that, but this is who we are, and we’re going to embrace it, and our fans embrace it, so that’s what’s most important. So we have to keep playing like this. We feed off their energy.”

* Brownell on the Cavaliers’ Pack-Line defense: “They’re not a huge denial team, so they’re not trying to deny it. But what they do is, they’ve got their hands up all the time. They get deflections. If you’re trying to pass out of a ball screen and you don’t pivot the right way or you don’t give it a shake first, you’re going to throw it into hands.”

* Hall on Diakite, who played 16 minutes off the bench: “Mamadi had a heck of a role today. He played his butt off, getting his hands on passes and blocking shots and rebounding.”

* Hall on what he’ll tell UVA’s younger players before their first game at Cameron: “It’s a rowdy place, of course. It’s a smaller place, rowdy, really packed, really loud. Just keep your composure and go in and do what we do.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Three of the Cavaliers’ next four games are on the road, starting Saturday at Duke. Virginia’s next home game is Wednesday, Jan. 31, against Louisville. ESPN2 will televise the 7 p.m. game.

Approximately 400 tickets to the Louisville game will go on sale Friday at 5 p.m. online at VirginiaSports.com.

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