By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — For University of Virginia men’s basketball players, there’s nothing quite like the first time they experience John Paul Jones Arena at full volume during a high-level game.

For Jake Groves, a graduate transfer from the University of Oklahoma, that occurred Wednesday night. In front of an amped-up crowd of 14,061 at JPJ, Virginia knocked off No. 14 Texas A&M 59-47 in the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge.

“It was one of the best environments I think I’ve been in,” said Groves, who began his college career at Eastern Washington University, “and I’ve played in a lot of really good arenas, really packed arenas. I think it’s hard for us coaches and players to understand or to express the appreciation we have for that crowd. Obviously, when we have momentum, they’re such a big part of that and they keep things rolling for us and they’re always [riding] the other team. I just think that the Hoo fans do a great job of that. So it’s big-time.”

Saturday is sure to bring more of the same. At noon, Virginia (6-1) hosts Syracuse (5-2) in the ACC opener for both teams, and fans will be looking to spoil Adrian Autry’s first visit to JPJ as the Orange’s head coach.


In 15 seasons under head coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have won 84 percent of their games at JPJ. Frenzied scenes and sounds at home games are nothing new to sophomore forward Ryan Dunn. Still, he doesn’t take them for granted.

“It’s amazing, just having the crowd [fired up] from the jump,” Dunn said. “From the starting lineups, you can hear them. It’s a different type of intensity—not intensity, but a different type of roar.”

Texas A&M is in its fifth season under Buzz Williams, whom UVA supporters remember well from his days as Virginia Tech’s head coach. With the Hokies, Williams went 3-7 against the Wahoos, and his team trailed most of the game Wednesday night.

The Aggies (6-2) dominated the backboards (42-30) and had 16 second-chance points, to only three for the Hoos. His team shot poorly against UVA’s trademark Pack Line defense, especially from 3-point range (4 for 23), but Williams pointed to another statistic in the box score. Texas A&M turned the ball over 16 times, with Dunn and senior point guard Reece Beekman each coming up with three steals for Virginia.

“I understand that we’re not going to play with zero turnovers,” Williams said, “but 16 is just an astronomically high number, percentage-wise, in a 59-possession game … It’s so hard to score against them [to begin with], but when you give them the ball that many times, it’s just bad math.”

Groves, who’s still learning the Pack Line, noted that “it’s really helpful when you’ve got guys like Reece and Ryan Dunn out there that are covering up a lot of mistakes. I’m blessed to be playing with great teammates.”

Rebounding has been a challenge for the Cavaliers this season, and Bennett was well aware of Texas A&M’s prowess in that area. His message to his players: Don’t yield. The Aggies came in having rebounded 46 percent of their missed shots, and they hit that average Wednesday night.

“They’re relentless that way,” Bennett said, “and you just wall up and play another possession of hard defense, and if they get a second one, do it again, in a possession.

“And so we just almost braced ourselves for the fact they’re going to get some, but don’t let them just put it back in and get an easy one. If we can, make them reset, and then we’ll guard them again … You just had to kind of bend but don’t break, and that was probably what happened.”

Bennett started the 6-foot-8 Dunn and the 6-foot-9 Groves in the frontcourt. At 211 pounds, Groves is no bruiser, but he’s an excellent outside shooter who sees the floor well.

“We needed his ability to stretch it and make some plays,” Bennett said.

The start was Groves’ third as a Cavalier and first since Nov. 10. He finished with 12 points, four rebounds and three assists.

“My job is just to maybe not get the rebound myself, but make sure [opposing players] don’t get the rebound,” Groves said. “And so I was just pushing and battling and shoving guys around and just trying to make sure they don’t get the ball, whatever that takes.”

Starters supplied all of the Hoos’ scoring. Rohde led Virginia with 13 points, and Groves, Dunn and Beekman had 12 apiece. Sophomore guard Isaac McKneely added 10 points. On defense, the Aggies usually switch on every screen, and UVA countered with superb ball movement and solid shooting (9 for 25 from beyond the arc).

“They were really struggling to guard us, which was good,” Groves said. “I think that starting five that we started tonight was a group that can really shoot it, can really drive it, can really stretch it.”

At the other end, UVA held the Aggies to 30.4 percent shooting from the floor. Junior guard Wade Taylor IV, who scored 35 points last week in A&M’s loss to Florida Atlantic, finished with nine points Wednesday night on 2-for-10 shooting. Power forward Henry Coleman III, who’s from Richmond, led the Aggies with 16 points and 14 rebounds. He made 8 of 14 shots the floor; his teammates were a combined 9 for 42.

“They had some missteps and missed a few shots,” Bennett said of the Aggies, “but I hope our defensive activity and the idea of not yielding played a part in that. That’s a hard-playing team. I’ve coached against Buzz and I know he’s a terrific coach and his teams are well-prepared.”

The Hoos’ challenge was to match A&M’s intensity, and “we talked about group identity,” Bennett said, “and I thought that was the message. Our identity showed the way it needed to in a game like this, and everybody did their part.”

In his postgame remarks, Williams singled out Beekman, Dunn and reserve forward Leon Bond III, who wear jersey Nos. 2, 13 and 35, respectively.

“No. 2 is an NBA defender, I think everybody knows that, and No. 13 is real close,” Williams said. “And then I think 35 changes their team from an athleticism standpoint [on the wing].”

For the season, Dunn has 20 blocked shots—11 more than 6-foot-11 freshman Blake Buchanan, who’s second on the team—and he’s tied with Beekman for the team lead in steals (20).

Against A&M, Dunn did a little bit of everything. He matched his career high with five blocks, grabbed five rebounds and made a career-best two 3-pointers. His trey with 15 seconds left in the first half, set up by one of Beekman’s game-high five assists, put the Hoos ahead to stay.

“Ryan was all over the place,” Bennett said. “He was so active. That was great to see. I thought Rohde really played a tough, good game, you saw that, and certainly Reece, he did the job defensively.”

This is a banged-up team. Beekman wore a sleeve on his right knee, and it wasn’t clear until warmups if he’d play Wednesday night. Groves took a blow to the head in the second half, and it opened a cut that required several stitches to close. Bennett compared UVA’s venerable athletic trainer, Ethan Saliba to Ferdie Pacheco, the legendary former cornerman for Muhammad Ali. Saliba worked on the cut, and Groves soon re-entered the game.

“We had [Saliba] in our corner and we got it done,” Bennett said, laughing.

Groves said: “Ethan got it under control, and we kept rolling.”

On crutches Wednesday was reserve point guard Dante Harris, who severely sprained his ankle in practice early this week. He’ll be sidelined indefinitely, and so freshman guard Elijah Gertrude, who came into the season planning to redshirt, made his UVA debut Wednesday night.

In seven-plus minutes, the 6-foot-4 Gertrude pulled down a rebound and blocked a shot.

“He came out and wasn’t scared of the moment,” Dunn said. ”He came out and did his job for us, and that was really big. Dante got hurt in practice, so [Gertrude] talked to me and said, ‘Hey, I might play.’ So I kind of just told him, ‘Hey, just be ready when your name is called. You don’t gotta do nothing crazy. Just do what TB asks you to do,’ and he did just that. So I’m very proud of him.”

Even before Harris got hurt, Bennett said, the coaching staff had been talking about changing course and playing Gertrude, who suffered a serious knee injury last November on the eve of his senior season of high school ball.

“Elijah’s leg is getting stronger and better,” Bennett said. “You saw him jump up, grab a rebound, block a shot.”

Gertrude missed the only shot he attempted, a 3-pointer from the left corner, but overall he acquitted himself well. “Quite a way to burn your redshirt: get thrown into that game and that situation,” Bennett said, smiling.

Next comes a clash with Syracuse, which has lost nine of its past 10 games with UVA. A win Saturday would improve Bennett’s record in ACC openers to 15-0, and JPJ figures to be jumping again.

“I’m really glad we got this win, and now we’re gonna get ready for Syracuse,” Dunn said.

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