By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– For the University of Virginia men’s basketball program, victories over ACC rival North Carolina, although no longer rare, remain occasions to be celebrated.
That was clear Sunday from the reaction of the sellout crowd at John Paul Jones Arena, where No. 5 UVA defeated No. 7 North Carolina 56-47. The volume inside JPJ stayed high throughout the second half, and the home fans were rewarded with a 56-47 victory, the Cavaliers’ fifth straight win in a series that dates to the 1910-11 season.
If the Wahoos’ execution was far from perfect, their overall effort could not be faulted.
“That’s who we are right now,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said. “We have to fight and scrap and play with guts. Sometimes we have, sometimes we haven’t.”
Such grit on the Cavaliers’ part was conspicuously absent in their previous game, a 69-40 loss at Purdue in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday night.
However painful that defeat might have been, Bennett said Sunday that he was “thankful for what Purdue showed us. It showed us a lot, and we tried to glean from that what we could, though it didn’t feel good.”
North Carolina suffered a humbling defeat Wednesday night too, falling 74-49 to No. 6 Ohio State in Chapel Hill, N.C. That added another storyline to the game at JPJ.
“We just wanted to come back this game and put it all on the line straight away,” UVA swingman Kody Stattmann said Sunday, “because we knew North Carolina would come back strong-minded, because they had a big loss as well.”
Both teams have been offensively challenged this season, and that was the case again Sunday at JPJ, where misses far outnumbered makes.
North Carolina (6-3 overall, 1-1 ACC) shot 37 percent from the floor, made only 1 of 14 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc, and missed 10 free throws. Virginia (8-1, 2-0) shot only 32.7 percent overall but hit six treys and was 18 of 25 from the line.
“It was an ugly game,” UNC head coach Roy Williams, “but Tony thought the beauty of it was a heck of a lot more than I did.”
This marks the first time since the 1947-48 season that UNC has been held to fewer than 50 points in back-to-back games.
“I’ve been very lucky coaching-wise,” Williams said, “but this is the most frustrated I’ve ever been. I don’t think we’re playing basketball the way that I want us to play, and that is probably the most frustrating [thing].”
Virginia is in transition too. After the departures of NBA draft picks Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter, this UVA team bears little resemblance at the offensive end to the 2018-19 squad that won the program’s first NCAA title.
“They had a great, great year last year and they lost a lot of great players,” Williams said, “and I’ve gone through that before. But defensively they do a really nice job.”
Leading that effort was point guard Kihei Clark, a 5-9 sophomore who drew the assignment of shadowing Cole Anthony, a heralded freshman guard who came in averaging 20 points per game.
Against UVA, Anthony missed 11 of 15 shots from the floor, turned the ball over six times, and had no assists.
“Kihei has played against good guys, and Cole is one of the better ones,” Bennett said, “and [Clark] took the challenge and made him work for his buckets.”
Another excellent defender for the Hoos, 6-8 senior Braxton Key, missed his third straight game with a broken wrist. But Virginia overcame his absence Sunday, thanks in large part to the contributions of such role players as Stattmann, Tomas Woldetensae, Francisco Caffaro and Justin McKoy.
“We needed it all,” Bennett said.
Stattmann, a 6-7 sophomore, missed four games late last month with an illness, and he’s still not 100 percent. But in his second game back, he scored seven points against the Tar Heels. Woldetensae, a 6-5 junior who transferred to UVA from a junior college after the 2018-19 academic year, was 3 for 4 from long range against UNC and finished with a season-high 11 points.
Woldetensae came into the game shooting 14.3 percent from beyond the arc.
To see some shots finally fall “makes me smile,” Woldetensae said. When he arrived at UVA in June, he was recovering from a wrist injury on his shooting hand, “and I’ll say maybe that affected my mind a little bit on shooting. But I’m just taking one step at a time, and I’ll be back.”
Frontcourt reserves Caffaro and McKoy earned the loudest cheers from UVA fans Sunday. Caffaro is a 7-0, 244-pound redshirt freshman from Argentina who’s known in the program as Papi. McKoy is a 6-8, 221-pound freshman from Cary, N.C., about 25 miles from Chapel Hill. Each recorded a season high in minutes: 20:30 for Caffaro and 17:07 for McKoy.
“I thought Papi and Justin were good, because of their effort and their heart,” Bennett said.
Caffaro contributed 10 points, seven rebounds and one blocked shot, all season highs. In terms of physicality and ruggedness, Bennett said, Caffaro reminds him of two other big men he’s coached: Aron Baynes at Washington State and Jack Salt at UVA.
“That’s just the way I always play,” Caffaro said. “I’ve tried to be physical since I started playing basketball. Every time I get a few minutes [on the court] –– one minute, five minutes –– I just try to do that and give the best to my team.”
McKoy, one of the few positives for UVA at Purdue’s Mackey Arena, totaled four points, five rebounds and one steal in 17 minutes against UNC.
Bennett has “challenged me to keep bringing energy and keep being tough and bringing that to the team,” McKoy said. “I think it’s a pretty natural part of my game.”
Stattmann said: “We need guys like that on the floor all the time. So, when I’m on the bench or on the floor and I see him hustling for rebounds and blocking out bigger guys than him, it’s a really big advantage for us. When he goes at guys like that, those guys tend to step back a bit and go away from his physicality.”
Mamadi Diakite, a 6-9 fifth-year senior, led Virginia with 12 points and added three rebounds, one assist, one block and one steal. He also had a career-high six turnovers.
“That’s a lot,” Bennett said. “He needs to tighten that up.”
HOW SWEET IT IS: About an hour before tipoff Sunday, the news broke that Virginia’s football team will play Florida in the Orange Bowl, Dec. 30 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
UVA defeated Virginia Tech 39-30 late last month to reclaim the Commonwealth Cup and clinch the program’s first Coastal Division title. The Cavaliers, who are in their fourth season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, lost to third-ranked Clemson in the ACC championship game Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C.
The team returned to Charlottesville early Sunday, and the players, accompanied by UVA president Jim Ryan and athletics director Carla Williams, among others, took the court at JPJ during the first TV timeout of the basketball game, to a standing ovation from the crowd.
Tickets for the Orange Bowl can be purchased here.
SOUND BITES: The victory over UNC was Virginia’s seventh in their past eight regular-season meetings. Among the postgame comments Sunday:
• Bennett on winning ugly: “You’ve got to grind it out, and that’s who we are for sure this year.”
• Bennett on Caffaro and McKoy: “We needed their physicality. We needed their effort. Mamadi was in foul trouble, and I just liked what I was seeing from those guys, and you go with what’s working.”
• Bennett: “I think young and old, we show flashes of good and flashes of unsoundness. So you just keep putting your head down, and you show up every day and you work, win or lose, and try to move the needle for toughness and soundness.”
• McKoy, with a smile, on facing an ACC team from his home state: “I would say all the games are important, but definitely there’s a little extra star by the North Carolina game, just because I’m from there. It’s a very competitive area.”
• Caffaro on his battles with Salt last season: “I like playing hard and physical, and that’s what he likes as well. We went at it in practice.”
• McKoy on Caffaro: “A lot of people say I bring physicality and toughness. I think Francisco brings a lot of that as well, possibly even more than me. He’s high energy. I saw him crashing the boards, boxing out and he was just flying all over the place. It was cool to watch, and I think it actually allowed me to crash the boards a lot too. [The Heels] were so worried about him that I feel like a lot of times my guy ended up ball-watching, looking at him, and it was able to open up stuff for me.”
UP NEXT: Final exams start Monday at the University, and the Hoos don’t play again until Dec. 18, when Stony Brook visits JPJ for a 6:30 p.m. game to air on ACC Network. Two more games will follow for the Cavaliers, both at JPJ, before the calendar flips to 2020: Dec. 22 against South Carolina and Dec. 29 against Navy.
It’s unclear when Key will be cleared to play. But he’ll get his stitches out soon, Bennett said, and he’s been working out with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis and head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba.
“We’ll see how he manages,” Bennett said. “Everything looks good so far.”