By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Thursday afternoon will find the University of Virginia men’s basketball team back at John Paul Jones Arena. The Wahoos have work to do.

UVA closed non-conference play with a 79-44 win over Morgan State at JPJ, but the margin of victory didn’t cause head coach Tony Bennett to lose perspective. Morgan State (4-11) was outmanned and short-handed Wednesday night, and Bennett knows tougher tests await his team, starting this weekend.

The Hoos have to focus on getting “better and better in certain areas,” Bennett said, “because you’re gonna have to be ready as you step into conference play.”

Virginia has 19 games left on its regular-season schedule, all against ACC opponents. The Cavaliers, who won their conference opener on Dec. 2, when they routed Syracuse 84-62 at JPJ, resume ACC play Saturday in South Bend, Ind.

At noon, in a game to air on ACC Network, UVA (10-2, 1-0) faces Notre Dame (5-7, 0-1). The Fighting Irish are in their first season under head coach Micah Shrewsberry. Their associate head coach is Kyle Getter, who spent five seasons as a UVA assistant before joining Shrewsberry’s staff this year.

UVA’s non-conference schedule included five matchups with Power Five opponents.  The Hoos went 3-2 in those games, defeating Florida, West Virginia and Texas A&M and losing to Wisconsin and Memphis.

Wisconsin hammered the Hoos 65-41 on Nov. 20 at the Fort Myers Classic in Florida. Memphis romped 77-54 on Dec. 19 on UVA’s first true road game of the season.

“Obviously, that was a gut punch, and nobody wants to lose like that,” sophomore swingman Andrew Rohde said of the Dec. 19 game at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.

The Cavaliers led Morgan State 43-16 at halftime and were never seriously threatened Wednesday night. After totaling a season-high 18 turnovers against Memphis, Virginia had only five Wednesday. But Bennett didn’t read much into that statistic.

“Just a different game,” he said.

Bryce Walker (left) and Elijah Gertrude

Of the 12 players in uniform for Virginia, all got into the game Wednesday night, and 11 of them scored, including walk-ons Tristan How and Bryce Walker. (Freshman big man Blake Buchanan, who went scoreless, grabbed five rebounds and blocked a shot in 13 minutes off the bench.)

“A lot of guys got to play,” Bennett said, “so that was that was good, to get guys on the floor and get [them] some minutes and put them in spots.”

Four players scored in double figures for Virginia, led by senior guard Reece Beekman (17 points), who also had seven assists, two rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal. Rohde, graduate student Jacob Groves and redshirt freshman Leon Bond III finished with 10 points apiece. Sophomore forward Ryan Dunn (eight points) grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds, and Bond had seven boards.

“Some guys did some good things out there,” Bennett said, “and we gotta keep coming together and improving, of course, but now it’s kind of like your second season.”

UVA has won seven of its past eight games with Notre Dame and leads the series 17-3, but that won’t mean anything Saturday in South Bend, Ind. The losses to Wisconsin and Memphis underscored the Cavaliers’ thin margin for error, especially at the defensive end.

Morgan State shot only 34.1 percent from the floor Wednesday night, but Virginia’s Pack Line defense broke down several times in the second half, much to Bennett’s displeasure.

“I think we still got work to do,” he said. “I think at times, even in this game, the ball either got by us too quickly, or we were a little a little stretched or [had] loss of vision.”

When that happens, Bennett added, it’s difficult for the Cavaliers “to be in position and stingy the way we have to be stingy. That’s our way with this team. It always has been here, but [there’s] maybe even more of a premium on this team to be real hard to score against. It takes a real connected group, and if one guy’s a little out of sync or not willing to lay it down or fight for position, that ball finds the weak link or the weak spot in the defense. So I think we have to move it up a notch in that area or we’re gonna have some tough ones.”

If the Hoos were far from flawless Wednesday night, Morgan State head coach Kevin Broadus still came away impressed.

“They have one of the highest IQs that we’ve played this year,” Broadus said, “and we’ve played against Arizona, who was really, really good. BYU is really, really good, some others. But I tell you, the IQ at the level that they play, it’s unbelievable. They’re going to win a lot of games because they don’t beat themselves.”

Reece Beekman (2)

Virginia’s active players include five who were elsewhere last season. Rohde, Groves and Jordan Minor were at St. Thomas, Oklahoma and Merrimack, respectively, and Buchanan and Elijah Gertrude were in high school. (A sixth player, Bond, redshirted at UVA in 2022-23.)

For the 6-foot-6 Rohde, the transition hasn’t been seamless. He’s started every game for the Cavaliers but came into the non-conference finale averaging only 5.6 points and 2.5 rebounds per game and shooting 33.3 percent from the floor (and 28.9 percent from beyond the arc).

“It’s been a lot different,” Rohde said, “obviously just the level of play and stuff like that. But I’m just blessed to have great people around me, helping me through that transition. Whenever I have questions or need help with things, they’re always there to answer.”

In his previous three games, Rohde totaled 16 assists but only three points and five rebounds. Against the Bears, not only did No. 4 score in double figures, but Rohde had five rebounds, four assists and three steals, and he was anything but passive with the ball.

“Obviously, I’ve been struggling to score the ball a little bit the past couple games,” Rohde said, “but my teammates and coaches are telling me, ‘Keep being yourself, keep looking for your shots.’ So that’s what I tried to do.”

Rohde wasn’t the only Cavalier to struggle in Memphis, “but I thought he responded well, and we’re going to need him to use his ability and his feel,” Bennett said. “He’s continued to adjust. This is just his second year [of college basketball] and first year of playing consistently … against the Power Five teams. So, there’s an adjustment period, I think you see the youth and inexperience at times show itself at inopportune times, but we need Andrew’s ability.”

Many UVA players, including Rohde, who’s from Milwaukee, Wis., headed home from Memphis for a short holiday break. The team reconvened at JPJ on Christmas Eve, and Beekman, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, challenged his teammates.

“When we came back, he grabbed us and was like, ‘Listen, we need to focus,’ ” How recalled Wednesday night. “Wisconsin was a tough loss. Memphis was a tough loss. Those are two really good teams. But we know kind of the answer. We just have to put in the effort to do it. We need to be a lot more sound. I think in both games we were competing, but then we kind of let it go at the end. And it’s just about being sound and tough. Coach has been preaching that the last couple of games: be sound and tough and play our way.”

The Cavaliers don’t want to forget the Memphis game, Rohde said, but to learn from the experience, “and we really kind of came to practice with a different edge, just trying to be the best team that we can be.”

With 1:16 remaining Wednesday night, How and Walker checked into the game, to the delight of the crowd of 14,637. The fans went home happy. First, they saw How make his second field goal of the season, and then the 6-foot-2 Walker closed the scoring with a 3-pointer that brought his teammates on the bench to their feet.

Bennett smiled when Walker’s shot dropped through, but he was all business back in the locker room.

“Coach Bennett was just telling us, good win, but now the real playing starts,” How said. “We’re [getting back into] conference play. I think we still need to be a lot more efficient, and he always talks about building good habits and managing breakdowns. So [there was] a lot of good stuff, but definitely not where we want to be.”

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