By Jeff White (email@example.com)
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — These are the times that test the mettle of a basketball program, especially one that’s experienced as much success as Virginia has during Tony Bennett’s 15 seasons as head coach.
The Wahoos have been uncharacteristically vulnerable away from John Paul Jones Arena this season. They hoped to write a different ending Saturday afternoon at Wake Forest’s Lawrence Joel Coliseum, but the result was painfully familiar for Bennett and Co. Virginia never led in a 66-47 loss to Wake Forest.
For the Demon Deacons (12-4 overall, 4-1 ACC), the victory was only their second in their past 12 games with the Cavaliers.
“We have a ton of respect for their head coach and their players, so we’re really happy to win this game,” Wake head coach Steve Forbes said.
Bennett noted that his daughter, Anna, graduated from Wake last spring. “I’m done paying tuition at Wake, so I guess they decided to take it out on us,” he said, smiling.
UVA, 9-0 at JPJ this season, is 0-4 in true road games, with a margin of defeat of at least 16 points in each one. Bennett’s record with the Hoos, whom he guided to the NCAA title in 2019, is 352-130, and most of his teams have excelled on the road.
“For a number of years, it’s been easy,” Bennett said. “There might have been a tough loss here or there at a certain time, but this is [different].”
And so he challenged his team after the game Saturday. “I said, ‘Look, anybody can have a good culture and good team character and buy in when you’re successful.’ ” It’s much harder “when you’re struggling and you’re getting humbled,” Bennett said. “Will you have a good team culture? Will you show character? Will you show up on Monday and work as hard as you can?”
These setbacks will reveal if “you’re about what we value in our program [and] you’re legitimately humble, because we’re getting humbled, and if you’re going to be passionate and competitive and stay unified and serve each other,” Bennett said. “And then as much as it stinks, be thankful for what this is teaching you, because it’s teaching valuable stuff.”
The Cavaliers (11-5, 2-3) shot a season-low 28.1 percent from the floor Saturday, and they made only four 3-pointers. For only the second time this season, sophomore guard Isaac McKneely did not make at least one 3-pointer for Virginia.
In a hard-earned win at Wake last season, the Hoos hit 15 treys. They attempted only 12 on Saturday, and Forbes was delighted with the Deacons’ perimeter defense.
“Last year was a different story, different team,” Bennett said, “but Steve’s got a good team.”
Against Virginia’s trademark Pack Line defense, the Deacons were 10 for 21 from 3-point range and shot 50 percent from the floor overall Saturday. Twice they ran an inbounds play that resulted in a layup. Three players scored in double figures for Wake, led by guard Hunter Sallis (21 points), a transfer from Gonzaga.
“We haven’t been able, at least on the road yet, to have a consistent two halves where at least we score enough,” Bennett said, “and then don’t have those stretches where we get gashed.”
As has been the case in most of the Cavaliers’ road games this season, they started slowly Saturday. Midway through the first half, Wake led 12-4. Virginia fought back, and it was a two-point game at the 4:00 mark. The Deacons pulled away again, but the Hoos went into the break down only six points.
“I thought in the first half we battled hard,” Bennett said.
“I feel like we were still in it,” senior guard Reece Beekman said. “We went into halftime with a good mindset and good mentality.”
The Deacons separated once play resumed. They scored the first seven points of the second half, however, and UVA was unable to cut its deficit to single deficits the rest of the way.
“We couldn’t seem to stop Wake off the dribble,” Bennett said. “They just kind of went either by us or at us and, boom, they were in the lane. And then even some of the good looks we got the second half, we couldn’t capitalize on them.”
With 10 points, Beekman was the only Cavalier to score in double figures, and he also had a team-high four assists. Jordan Minor, a graduate transfer from Merrimack, contributed nine points, five rebounds, one steal and one blocked shot.
Minor, who came in averaging 7.1 minutes per game, made his first start for Virginia on Saturday and played 22-plus minutes.
“He’s practiced better the last couple of weeks,” Bennett said.
Minor played well in the final minutes of UVA’s loss at NC State last week, and that impressed the coaching staff, Bennett said, “because we’re obviously searching to find personnel who can give us a lift … He’s getting used to it a little more, and I thought he really played as hard as he could today. And I liked that part.”
At 6-foot-8, 242 pounds, Minor was better-equipped physically than 225-pound freshman Blake Buchanan to defend Wake’s post players, who include 7-foot, 250-pound Efton Reid, and “and so I was happy for the effort he put forth,” Bennett said. “He has improved and just from a sheer mass standpoint, he did a good job.”
Minor said it “felt good to be out there for my teammates. That’s probably the best thing: just being there with my teammates. Through this ride, they’ve helped me stay encouraged. The coaching staff has helped me stay encouraged. So it was a great feeling just to be out there and try to put my best foot forward for them.”
The Cavaliers, who haven’t played at home since Jan. 3, are back at JPJ on Wednesday for the first of two regular-season dates with Virginia Tech. The 7 p.m. game, which will air on ESPNU, is a sellout.
UVA leads the series with Tech 97-59. In each of the past two regular seasons, the teams have split their two meetings.
“Big game for us at home against Tech,” Beekman said. “That’s always a good game, but we’ve got to find ourselves again. I know we’ve had success at home, but we’ve got to try to put it all together.”
Minor said: “Road games aren’t easy to win, but I feel like as a team we’ve stuck together. We still love each other. That’s the biggest thing. So we’re still together and we still have a high spirit and we think we can turn this around.”
The adversity the Cavaliers are facing “is only going to make us more strong-willed and better,” Minor said. “So we’ve just got to take it for what it is and kind of find the best in this losing experience.”
Bennett said: “You just keep plugging, and that’s invaluable. I know we’re judged on wins and losses, but in the long run, there’s a bigger picture going on, and you find out what your identity is about, you find out what your culture is in these times.
“They’re our boys; they’re good young men, and we just fight through it together and figure this out. And we’ll see what happens.”
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