By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PITTSBURGH — Spread around the Petersen Events Center on Saturday were pockets of University of Virginia fans, and they made their presence known from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Still, this was a road game for the team they came to cheer, and so the nets stayed intact after No. 1 UVA rolled to a 66-37 victory over ACC foe Pittsburgh.
The Cavaliers savored the moment anyway.
“It’s a special day for us,” head coach Tony Bennett said after Virginia secured its third outright ACC regular-season title in five seasons.
“Great accomplishment,” said UVA guard Devon Hall, a graduate student who’s been a part of all three championships.
The Wahoos (26-2, 15-1) locked up the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament Wednesday night by beating Georgia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena. With that victory, they also clinched at least a share of the ACC regular-season title, but the ‘Hoos weren’t satisfied.
“Nobody wants to share that,” senior forward Isaiah Wilkins said.
And so the Cavaliers pounced on the ACC’s last-place team from the start Saturday, scoring the game’s first eight points. The Panthers (8-22, 0-17) didn’t make a field goal until more than 10 minutes had passed, and that proved to be their only one of the half.
At the break, the ‘Hoos led 30-7. That’s the fewest points allowed in a half by UVA since 1986, when the shot-clock era began.
Pitt shot 4.5 percent from the floor in the first half and 23.9 percent for the game.
“That wasn’t any fun at all,” head coach Kevin Stallings said. “Virginia’s the real deal … Defensively, they just don’t have any weaknesses and make it very difficult for you.”
The Panthers made six 3-pointers in the second half, but they never threatened the Cavaliers, who used all of their available players. Of UVA’s starters, only Hall (25) and sophomore guard Ty Jerome (24) played more than 21 minutes.
“We got off to a good start, and we tried to not let up in any way and play as hard as we could defensively and just get good shots,” Bennett said, “and we were fortunate enough to be able to get some [playing time for] guys who work really hard in practice.”
Off the bench, redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite played 24 minutes, fifth-year senior Nigel Johnson played 23 and redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter played 22. Freshman Marco Anthony was in for 14 minutes, and redshirt freshman Jay Huff, in his first appearance since Jan. 23, for eight.
“I love to play,” Hall said, “but it’s good to be able to get those guys in to get some more experience.”
Wilkins said: “It’s obviously good for your body [to rest], and it’s good for those guys to get out there and get some experience too.”
The 6-7 Hunter, who’s fast becoming the Cavaliers’ most dynamic player, recorded his first double-double, putting up 14 points and 10 rebounds, both game highs. The 10 boards were a career high for Hunter, who also had three assists.
Hunter had three of Virginia’s seven offensive rebounds.
The coaches “tell me to be aggressive on the offensive glass when I’m the [power forward], so that’s what I tried to do,” said Hunter, whose cheering section included a cousin who attends Pitt.
He smiled. “Defensively I’m already down there, so I might as well grab a few.”
Also scoring in double figures for UVA, which shot 51 percent from the floor, were Jerome (13) and Johnson (12). That’s the most for Johnson, a graduate transfer, since he had 22 in a Dec. 22 win over Davidson at JPJ.
Starting Jan. 31, Johnson had to sit out three games for violating team rules. He returned Feb. 10 for Virginia’s clash with Virginia Tech at JPJ, but he went scoreless that night and totaled only four points in his next two games.
Against Pitt, however, Johnson looked comfortable and confident with the ball. He made 4 of 6 shots from the floor, including both of his 3-point attempts, and went 2 for 2 at the line.
“I thought he did a good job,” Bennett said. “Maybe he was a little rusty from his three-game suspension, but I thought today he gave us a lift. We’ve been pushing hard in practice and challenging him.”
When he decided to leave Rutgers and spend his final college season at another school, Johnson wanted, first and foremost, to find a successful program. He expected the ‘Hoos to have a strong season, Johnson admitted, but not this good.
“We’ve shattered my expectations,” he said. “I expected to be somewhere in the top four or five of the ACC, but to be the outright champions and No. 1 is something I didn’t expect for us as a team. We’ve surpassed my expectations so far.”
If Johnson’s performance delighted UVA fans, so did the flashes shown by the 7-1 Huff, who played the final 8:10 and contributed four points, two blocked shots and one rebound.
Late in the game, when Huff caught an entry pass on the left block, Diakite yelled from the bench, ‘Go to work!’ Whether Huff heard his teammate or not is unclear, but he dribbled around his defender and threw down a dunk on which he was fouled.
Huff missed the free throw, but 39 seconds later he went back to the line, and this time he went 2 for 2.
“I thought offensively he made a couple nice moves,” Bennett said. “You can see he’s very skilled and gifted, good in the post, can shoot it, and has been working really hard in practice. And so, yeah, I liked what I saw.. Those guys that haven’t played that much, you get out there and it’s a little fast, and things kind of come at you [fast].”
Bennett said, as he has repeatedly this season, that he hopes Huff “continues to get stronger and to improve. It’s not a matter of if, I think it’s a matter of when … So that was a good thing for him today, and he’s been working really hard in practice, and has one of the best attitudes that I’ve ever been around. He’s all about the team, but is competitive, so hopefully this will be a good step for him.”
VIP SECTION: The crowd of 6,534 included Sammy Zeglinski, a guard on Bennett’s first three teams at UVA.
His sister, Christina, is a student athletic trainer at Pitt, and she was honored before the game during a Senior Day ceremony. Her brother Sammy’s allegiance was clear, however. He wore a Virginia Basketball T-shirt.
Also in attendance were Zeglinski’s parents and one of his brothers.
Zeglinski, who played professionally after completing his college career, is now back in his hometown of Philadelphia, working in real estate. He ranks seventh in career 3-pointers at UVA, with 200. With 156 career steals, he ranks 10th at Virginia.
THEY SAID IT: The road victory was the Cavaliers’ ninth straight in ACC play, a program record. Afterward, both sides had much to say.
* Wilkins on the regular-season title: “It’s exciting. It’s a good feeling, but there’s still a lot of basketball to go.”
* Bennett on Pitt’s first-half struggles: “I’ve been on the other side of that … and that’s a hard feeling. I have the utmost respect for Kevin Stallings. I think he’s got such a bright mind and he’s such a good coach. They just missed some point-blank [shots], and I think their inexperience and youth showed up, and for the most part we were in position [on defense].”
* Stallings: “I thought we were a little intimidated in the first half, which really, honestly, kind of surprised me, because we’ve not shown that so much, I don’t think … But you don’t get many good shots against [the Cavaliers], and then what happens is, when you get a good one, then you rush it, because you’re thinking, ‘Gosh, we don’t get many of these. I better try to get this one in the goal.’ But their defense is just phenomenal.”
* Stallings on his halftime message to his players: “I told them I was disappointed, because I thought that we had, like, a deer-in-the-headlights look in the first half, and I didn’t anticipate that.”
* Jerome on the message in the visiting locker room with the score 30-7: “No lie, Coach Bennett came in at halftime and said, ‘I think we gave up a few too many open looks.’ ”
* Pitt swingman Jared Wilson-Frame on the Cavaliers’ trademark Pack Line defense: “There’s actually a couple teams that play defense the way they do, just not at the same level.”
WHAT’S NEXT? Two regular-season games remain for UVA. The first is Thursday night at Louisville (19-10, 9-7), which rallied to defeat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Saturday afternoon.
The Cavaliers beat the Cardinals 74-64 in Charlottesville on Jan. 31.
Virginia closes the regular season next Saturday at 4 p.m. against Notre Dame (17-12, 7-9) at JPJ, which is sold out.
“We’re trying to turn it up another notch,” Hall said of the Cavaliers’ mentality as postseason approaches.
“It’s about us,” he said. “It’s not about the other team, so we have to keep doing what we do.”
Asked where the ‘Hoos need to improve, Jerome said, “I don’t know if it’s necessarily doing something better. I think it’s just keep playing to our strengths and keep growing as a team. There’s not, I don’t think, one thing we have to just magically do better. We just have to keep getting better every day and be consistently good.”