By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In two games this season, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team has allowed 68 points –– 34 in each one –– and its opponents have shot a combined 25 for 108 (23.1 percent) from the floor.
Is head coach Tony Bennett’s latest team as dominant defensively as the numbers would suggest? It’s too early to tell, Bennett said Sunday night after Virginia overwhelmed James Madison 65-34 at John Paul Jones Arena. But the early returns are impressive.
In its opener, Wednesday night at the Carrier Dome, No. 11 UVA defeated ACC rival Syracuse 48-34. This marks the first time since the 1943-44 season that the Cavaliers have limited each of their first two opponents to fewer than 40 points.
“I know we have to play good defense [to be successful],” Bennett said. “As I told [the team] before the game, it’s not always going to be pretty, but it has to be gritty. There’re so many possessions during the game and the defense has to hold you in there when shots aren’t falling or you’re not as adept offensively. It’s about the ability to challenge shots.”
The Cavaliers’ point guard, sophomore Kihei Clark, is only 5-9, but his teammates include 7-1 Jay Huff, 6-9 Mamadi Diakite, 6-8 Braxton Key, 6-8 Justin McKoy and 6-7 Kody Stattmann.
The Dukes “are a heavy 3-point shooting team, and I think our length bothered them at times,” Bennett said.
His counterpart agreed. “Their size and athleticism affected everything,” JMU head coach Louis Rowe said.
The Dukes (1-1) made only 12 of 53 shots (22.6 percent) overall. JMU was 8 for 31 from beyond the 3-point arc against the Wahoos’ Pack Line defense.
“It’s hard to prepare,” Rowe said. “We don’t have Huff and Diakite on our scout team.”
With four minutes left in the first half, this was a two-point game. But a Clark 3-pointer made it 25-20 at the 3:29 mark, and by the break the Hoos led 31-23. The second half brought no relief for the Dukes (1-1).
Their 11 points after intermission were the fewest ever in a second half by a UVA opponent at JPJ, which opened in 2006.
“All due respect to that team and that staff,” Rowe said. “What they do is really, really, really good, and it’s really challenging, and it’s 40 minutes of it.”
Diakite, a fifth-year senior, posted the first double-double of his college career (19 points and 13 rebounds, both career highs) and also blocked two shots. Huff and Stattmann each had two blocks, too.
Key, a senior who spent his first two years at Alabama, finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds –– his first double-double –– and added two assists and a steal.
“I liked how he was aggressive,” Bennett said. “He took the ball into the defense, and for the most part was efficient. He didn’t turn the ball over a lot, and so I liked that. He can always rebound.”
The Dukes opened the game in a man-to-man defense but soon switched to a 2-3 zone. It wasn’t nearly effective as the version UVA encountered in Syracuse. The Cavaliers struggled from long range, missing 21 of 25 attempts from beyond the arc, but they carved up JMU around the basket.
“I thought in the second half the guys adjusted well,” said Bennett, whose record in home openers at UVA is 11-0. “They started being a little more aggressive and not trying to play so perfect and scared and they punched some gaps. We moved some pieces around to give us some more room, and I thought it was better.”
Junior-college transfer Tomas Woldetensae, a 6-5 guard, had his left foot in a protective boot and was unavailable Sunday night, which meant extensive playing time for Stattmann and 6-3 Casey Morsell.
In his first start, Stattmann had an impressive fast-break dunk in the first half and later scored on a stickback, but he was 0 for 6 from 3-point range. Morsell was 0 for 5 from beyond the arc and 0 for 9 overall.
“It’s really their first year just getting on the floor and really playing big minutes,” Clark said. “I just tell them to keep shooting. They’re both elite shooters, and the team is going to need them to shoot.”
Bennett said: “You can’t be afraid, when you have an open shot, to shoot. I just want them to play the game … It’s just good for them to be out there, and I like to see them make good basketball plays on both ends. And if it’s a quality shot, shoot it in rhythm and take it. Don’t aim it. Shoot it.”
SPECIAL MOMENT: The home fans in the crowd of 13,524 were in high spirits throughout the game. Never were they louder than when, with 1:54 to play, two of the team’s managers, Grant Kersey and Matt Palumbo, checked into the game.
“That was one of the highlights for me,” Bennett said.
Kersey, a former standout at Albemarle High School, appeared in 10 games last season and scored 17 points. For Palumbo, though, this was his college debut, and he had no idea it was coming.
Before the game, knowing his team was short-handed in the backcourt, Bennett had Kersey’s and Palumbo’s names added to the scorebook, so both would be eligible to play.
With the Cavaliers in command late in the second half, Bennett instructed his right-hand man, associate athletics director Ronnie Wideman, to send Kersey and Palumbo back to the locker room, where uniforms were waiting for them.
“They said [Palumbo’s] eyes were as big as they get,” Bennett said, smiling.
A third-year student in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Palumbo starred at nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School. He’s “a wonderful young man who’s helped our program in so many ways,” Bennett said.
Palumbo’s only shot, a 3-point attempt, was off the mark, but Kersey grabbed the rebound and scored to make it 63-24 with 1:28 to play.
“I talk about the true servants in our program, those who serve others well,” Bennett said. “That was awesome. And I could see it in his eyes [and the reaction of] his family. Same thing with Grant.
“I just love that. That’ll be one of my favorite memories of my time here, to be honest.”
SOUND BITES: Virginia improved to 11-0 all-time against JMU. Among the postgame comments at JPJ:
• Bennett on his team’s perimeter offense: “I told the guys, ‘If it’s a good shot, you have to take shots at times, even if you miss them.’ It hurt us that Tomas wasn’t available. He’s a guy that is capable in practice of knocking down some shots. So I knew our backcourt was going to be thin, but I liked that we finally got into the lane and got some penetration and some stuff at the basket, as opposed to standing kind of like scarecrows around the perimeter and not looking to attack.”
• Huff on Diakite: “His one-on-one game has improved dramatically. He’s also very quick, so just that combo makes him hard to guard. Because if you step back too far, then he’ll shoot it, and then if you get too close he’ll go right past you and dunk it, as we saw.”
• Huff on UVA’s defense so far: “Everyone says that we’re a young team, and we kind of are, but I think [the newcomers have] learned the Pack Line really well, and I think overall our team is pretty comfortable playing defense. It would be cool if to keep a streak of 34-point games consistently.”
• Diakite on becoming a focal point of Virginia’s offense this season: “I take it as a challenge. I think that’s one thing that makes me do better every time. Every time that I have to do something out of my comfort zone, I try to challenge myself and tell myself, ‘OK, this is not easy, but I can do it.’ “
* JMU head coach Louis Rowe on Diakite: “He’s coming into his own … That’s a very, very talented and confident guy right now.”
UP NEXT: UVA is home Saturday against Columbia of the Ivy League. The Cavaliers, who lead the series 2-0, will host the Lions at noon at JPJ.
Columbia fell to 0-2 with a two-point loss Sunday afternoon at Wake Forest. The Lions host Binghamton on Wednesday night before traveling to Charlottesville.
A limited number of tickets are available for Saturday’s game at JPJ. Click here for available seat locations.