By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Their record at John Paul Jones Arena this season is 9-0, and their average margin of victory there against Power Five opponents is 19.3 points.

The Virginia Cavaliers’ troubles have come away from home. UVA is 2-1 at neutral sites, with down-to-the-wire wins over Florida and West Virginia and a 24-point loss to Wisconsin. In true road games, the Wahoos are 0-2, and neither one was close. They lost 77-54 at Memphis on Dec. 19 and 76-54 at Notre Dame last weekend.

When Louisville head coach Kenny Payne reviewed videotape of the Memphis and Notre Dame games, he saw an uncharacteristically vulnerable UVA team. That didn’t fill him with confidence ahead of the Cardinals’ visit to JPJ on Wednesday night.

“We knew that they would come in here on their home court and play different, play with energy, play with fight,” Payne said after the Cavaliers’ 77-53 victory.

Louisville (5-8 overall, 0-2 ACC) knew “we were gonna get a team that’s focused, that’s ready to fight and determined and disciplined, and they were,” Payne said.

The victory was the Hoos’ 19th straight at home, a streak that began Dec. 22, 2022, with a 20-point win over Albany.

“I wish we could play at JPJ every night, but unfortunately we can’t,” said sophomore guard Isaac McKneely, who led Virginia with 18 points (on 7-for-11 shooting) against Louisville.

Saturday brings another opportunity for the Cavaliers to break through on the road. At 2 p.m., in a game to air on ACC Network, UVA (11-3, 2-1) meets NC State (10-3, 2-0) at PNC Arena in Raleigh.

The Wolfpack rallied to edge Notre Dame 54-52 late Wednesday night in South Bend, Ind.

“We’re not always going to have the JPJ fans with us at our games,” McKneely said, “so we’re going to have carry that energy that we bring when we have a home game to an away game as well and show we can play on the road, too.”

This is Tony Bennett’s 15th season as head coach of the Hoos, whose record during his tenure is 352-128. Most of Bennett’s teams have excelled away from JPJ, and that’s made the Cavaliers’ road struggles this season confounding.

To win on the road, a team has “to be rock-solid and steady,” Bennett said Wednesday night, and the Hoos were neither one against Memphis or Notre Dame. The Tigers raced out to a 13-1 lead at FedExForum, and the Fighting Irish scored the game’s first 13 points at Purcell Pavilion.

“You’ve got to stay attached,” Bennett said.

Taine Murray

From a team that earned a share of the ACC’s regular-season title in 2022-23, UVA lost five of its top seven scorers, so its uneven play thus far is perhaps not surprising. But for the Hoos to reach their goals, they need their newcomers and unseasoned players to elevate their performances away from JPJ.

“There’s a consistency, a continuity, that guys that have played a lot understand,” Bennett said. “Their game doesn’t vary whether they’re playing at a neutral site, at home or on the road. The competition can go up and down, but the game is there, and I hope this was a step in trying to play the right way.”

UVA plays on the road each of the next six Saturdays. The ACC did the Cavaliers no favors with this schedule, and they can expect to encounter “some lively crowds,” Bennett said. “You’ve just got to be steady, and that kind of gets to our pillar of humility: Know who you are and then fight like crazy to establish it and hold on to it through the ups and downs in the game, especially road games.”

Bennett saw a lot to like Wednesday night in a victory he called “a step in the right direction.” The Cavaliers shot 51.7 percent from the floor, committed a season-low three turnovers and outrebounded Louisville 34-27.

McKneely, who was a combined 8 for 34 from the floor in UVA’s previous four games, broke out of his slump in emphatic fashion.

“When you have a few games like that where you’re not shooting it too well, a game like this where you bounce back and shoot it well definitely helps the confidence,” McKneely said. “So moving forward, I think it’ll help for sure.”

Virginia’s other standouts included sophomore forward Ryan Dunn, who totaled 15 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots, one steal and one assist; senior guard Reece Beekman, who scored 11 points and matched his season high with eight assists; forward Jacob Groves, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma who tied his season high with nine rebounds; and junior swingman Taine Murray, who made 5 of 6 shots from the floor and scored a season-best 12 points in 18-plus minutes off the bench.

“I just thought we were more ready,” Bennett said. “Obviously, it helped being at home, but the guys responded. I was so happy for Taine. He just works and works, and he gave us a good lift and played well, and his physicality and his toughness was good.”

Murray’s playing time has fluctuated this season, but he’s continued to put forth maximum effort in practice, and he saw his perseverance rewarded Wednesday night.

“I’m so proud of Taine,” McKneely said. “I’m so happy for him. He works so hard … He was bound to have a game like this, and I think he’s just going to continue to help us and continue to provide that spark off the bench.”

It would have easy for the 6-foot-5 Murray, who’s from Auckland, New Zealand, to get discouraged, “but I guess I just believe in this program,” he said. “I trust, obviously, Coach Bennett and the coaching staff … So I just tried to stay as positive as I can throughout the highs and lows, and it was obviously awesome to be able to kind of play like that tonight.”

Ryan Dunn

The win was the Cavaliers’ eighth straight over the Cardinals, who are in their second season under Payne.

For Dunn, the 15 points matched his career high and were his most against an ACC opponent. He was 7 for 8 from the floor. Dunn has been thrust into a much larger role than he had as a freshman, and “when you have a game where you see some positive things like that, that can only help with confidence,” Bennett said.

In their losses to Memphis and Notre Dame, the Cavaliers shot only 38.7 percent from the floor, and they were 6 for 30 (20 percent) from 3-point range. All those misses affected Virginia’s defense, Bennett acknowledged Wednesday night.

“What I liked today is there was just a real good commitment to be who we are defensively: jam the lane, try to get to shooters, rebound better, and it didn’t vary,” Bennett said. “Now, we made shots, we were at home, but absolutely, there’s times when we’ve been a little bit immature in our approach defensively, because it is discouraging when you either miss some close bunnies, miss free throws, [or have] a turnover in there … It has gotten into our heads defensively, and that’s got to stop.”

In Virginia’s losses, McKneely said, “I think we just weren’t giving max effort. We weren’t playing together on both ends, but I thought tonight we played well together on both ends. We were clicking on offense, of course, but I thought our defense had really good stretches as well. And  when we’re really good on both ends, I think we’re really hard to beat. So we need to strive to do that every night.”

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