By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The next time the University of Virginia men’s basketball team plays at John Paul Jones Arena, on Dec. 8, its opponent will be ACC rival North Carolina, and the atmosphere is sure to be electric.
The scene was more subdued Wednesday at JPJ, where offensive highlights were far and far between for the nation’s seventh-ranked team. But the short-handed Cavaliers, as usual, played stifling defense, and that carried them to a 46-26 victory over Maine.
That tied the program record for fewest points allowed in the shot-clock era, which began in 1986. The Black Bears didn’t score in the final 8:38.
“We take great pride in that,” redshirt junior Jay Huff said. “[Strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis] challenged us at half to not let this team score 30. I think we were thinking about that as the clock dwindled down to…four minutes when they had 26 points and it stayed that way for the rest of the time…We were kind of constantly just thinking about it in the back of our minds.”
The defending NCAA champion Wahoos (7-0) shot 38.6 percent from the floor. They were positively torrid compared to Maine (2-4), which connected on only 8 of 43 (18.6 percent) field-goal attempts. The Hoos forced three shot-clock violations.
“I think the big thing is, when you’re struggling on the offensive end, [holding] on with your defense, and that’s what Virginia does,” said Maine head coach Richard Barron, who spent time around the Cavaliers’ program when he was growing up.
“They do it every single game. They’re so committed to the defense end, that they can have the drought that they had against Arizona State and still come out victorious. We’re trying to learn how to build a winning culture, and that’s a big part of winning.”
In the championship game of the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off Tournament, Arizona State went on a 19-0 run, spanning each half, against UVA. But the Hoos rallied to win 48-45 on Sunday afternoon in Uncasville, Conn.
For the season, the Cavaliers are shooting only 25 percent from 3-point range –– they were 6 of 18 from beyond the arc against Maine –– but their defense has been superb. Opponents have hit only 28.8 percent of their field-goal attempts against Virginia this season.
“If ever there’s a team that has to be hungry to defend no matter how hard it is –– and that’s where the heart and the effort comes in – hungry to rebound and to be kind of a hard rock when you’re in a stance and beat screens, it’s us,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said.
The Cavaliers’ latest tournament title came at a steep price. Late in the championship game Sunday, Braxton Key suffered a wrist injury that required surgery after the team returned to Charlottesville. Key, a 6-8 senior who leads UVA in rebounding and is tied for second on the team in scoring, is out indefinitely.
Against Maine, Virginia also was without sophomore swingman Kody Stattmann, who missed his fourth consecutive game with an illness.
“Hopefully Kody will get healthier,” Bennett said. “He seems to be moving in the right direction.”
Mamadi Diakite and Huff combined for 28 of the Cavaliers 46 points. Diakite, a 6-9 fifth-year senior, finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, both game highs. The 7-1 Huff added 13 points and five boards.
Point guard Kihei Clark didn’t score in double figures, but the 5-9 sophomore matched his career high with three treys. Clark finished with nine points, five assists, three rebounds, three steals and only one turnover.
“He’s our heart and soul,” Bennett said. “I kind of used him as the example [for the other Cavaliers]. We’re going to have to play as hard as he plays on every possession, everyone, that’s the call for us to be successful. And he brings it, at both ends, and has that warrior-like mentality.”
Bennett also praised the effort shown by walk-on guards Chase Coleman and Jayden Nixon, each of whom registered a career high in minutes, and redshirt freshman center Francisco Caffaro.
“They fought,” Bennett said. “I can’t say that about everybody, but we’ve just got to keep finding some more ways to challenge ourselves with effort and continue to work on our shooting. I know that’s obviously a big eyesore, and guys are hesitant at times and uncertain, but hopefully as we get healthier we’ll be better, but the competition certainly will step up, and that will reveal even more.”
OFF THE MARK: Freshman guard Casey Morsell and junior swingman Tomas Woldetensae, who joined Diakite, Huff and Clark in the starting lineup, were a combined 2 for 13 from the floor.
Morsell was coming off the best game of his brief college career. He scored 19 points and hit a pivotal trey in Virginia’s win over Arizona State.
For the season, Morsell is shooting 23.2 percent and Woldetensae 21.9 percent from the floor.
“You give them confidence, but you’ve got to be real too,” Bennett said. “You can’t say, ‘Hey, no problem. Just keep shooting all the time.’ You’ve got to have a balance.”
SOUND BITES: Virginia has won 21 straight non-conference games at JPJ. Among the postgame comments Wednesday evening:
• Bennett on Key’s injury: “Obviously that’s a tough blow, because he brings some heart and effort on the glass and energy defensively, and just his experience.”
• Bennett on the Cavaliers’ performance against Arizona State: “It was tough to have a 19-0 run against us. Those were some mistakes we made that cost us. But it said a lot for them to respond and overcome that 19-0 deficit. Guys made some big plays. Casey made some nice drives, hit the big 3. We got stops. Different guys made different plays.”
• Huff on Virginia’s shooting woes: “For the whole team that’s a difficult thing to get through. But I think our defense has been our anchor. So, whether or not we’re making shots we’ll be hopefully getting stops.”
• Diakite on Clark: “Kihei is just Kihei. There’s nobody like Kihei, really.”
• Barron: “The two coaches that I really kind of admire the most and would like to be most like are Terry Holland and Tony Bennett. These are big role models for me. When I look at everything about what Coach Bennett does, the way he carries himself, the way he interacts with the community. He’s such a nice guy, and he’s so freaking competitive. He’s going to twist the knife. I love how he walks that line. He just has that balance.”
REMATCH: In the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, UVA plays Purdue at 7:15 or 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in West Lafayette, Ind. ESPN or ESPN2 will televise the game, the second meeting between these programs in about eight months.
In an epic NCAA tournament game, March 30 in Louisville, Ky., Virginia rallied for an 80-75 overtime win over the Boilermakers to advance to the Final Four.
The Cavaliers who starred on the final play of regulation –– Clark and Diakite –– are back this season. But four of the other standouts from that game, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and UVA’s De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, are now in the NBA.
Virginia leads the series 2-1.
Purdue is playing in the Emerald Coast Classic this weekend. The Boilermakers take on No. 20 VCU on Friday night in Destin, Fla.