Bennett exits Steel Town with bitter thoughts about Virginia’s defensive breakdowns

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Pitt’s Jeff Capel meets with Virginia’s Tony Bennett. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

As near-perfect as Virginia’s defense played in Atlanta last Saturday, the Cavaliers couldn’t duplicate the performance in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night and paid the price.

After forcing 23 Georgia Tech turnovers and pulling off 17 steals against the Yellow Jackets, UVA’s defense found itself under attack by a more physical Pitt team in a 68-65 loss (see related game story).

This was not the same Pitt program that Virginia had dominated since the Panthers came into the ACC, winning 12 of 14 matchups, including the previous eight. Jeff Capel, who has had a woeful time attempting to keep players from leaving the Pitt program over the past four years, finally figured it out. Just bring in a new team.

That’s exactly what Capel did in the offseason, reloading the Pitt program through the transfer portal, bringing in experienced players from all over the country. Just like in the old western movies, he brought in hired gunslingers to handle the uncooperative ranchers.

Tony Bennett tried to warn his players about what to expect, but his message didn’t resonate.

“I told our guys this will be a blue-collar game in a blue-collar town,” Bennett said.

Pitt was the more aggressive team, by Capel’s design, particularly in the second half, and Virginia didn’t respond the way Bennett expected.

“Pitt is good and tough, but it was too easy for them,” Bennett said. “They say good teams will destroy poor execution, and that’s what it felt like. Our defense wasn’t executing well. First things first, you’ve got to get back with all your might and stop the ball and keep it in front.”

There was an eight-to-10-minute stretch in the second half when UVA’s Kadin Shedrick, the team’s best rim protector, was on the bench, and while that made a difference, Bennett believed the problem with his defense stemmed from breakdowns elsewhere.

Capel said he believed his players could drive the ball on Virginia, and he was correct in that analysis. Pitt shredded the Cavaliers’ vaunted Pack-Line so much that it didn’t seem to matter who was down on the block, Shedrick or Kareen Abdul-Jabbar.

“We had a lot of breakdowns … everyone did on the floor, and that cost us,” Bennett said. “Certainly you need rim protection, but if you’re going to play as poor defense as we did in the second half, maybe every now and then you an block a few shots and bother stuff. But it’s gotta happen before it gets in the lane that deep, and that was the issue.”

Virginia surrendered 45 points in the second half. We have all seen UVA games where an opponent didn’t score that many points over 40 minutes, let alone 20, and that really bothered Bennett.

The Cavaliers’ offense wasn’t all that bad overall. They made 9 of 21 triples, shot 47 percent for the game, although they only got to the free-throw line for a season-low four attempts. Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas were MIA on offense and that hurt the cause, but it was poor defense that cost Virginia this game.

Bennett said several times after the loss that had his team tightened up on defense, they probably would have walked out of town with a win.

“You can’t give up 45 points in the second half,” Bennett said. “We still had a chance, but that won’t cut it defensively.”

It’s not like Virginia, now 10-3 overall and 2-2 in the ACC, is falling apart. The Cavaliers have lost tight games to Houston, likely the nation’s No. 1 team in next week’s poll, and to a top-25 Miami team, and now to Pitt, which is 4-0 in the ACC and tied for first place in the league.

Capel said that his team, which has been a good defensive team, took advantage of some things he had planned for, and some he didn’t. When Shedrick was out of the game, an aggressive Pitt team became even more aggressive with no rim protector in the game.

“I mean that was big, but even when [Shedrick] was in, we were trying to pull him away from the basket, trying to put him in ball screens,” Capel said. “And then, our guys just made plays, big-time plays for us.”

The fact that Pitt point guard Nelly Cummings played the second half without a turnover against a defense as good as UVA’s was also big — “I don’t know if I’ve seen that (vs. UVA) since I’ve been in this league,” said Capel — and that Cavaliers’ point guard Kihei Clark was pressured into a rare five turnovers (eight assists, 17 points), was even bigger.

“The forced turnovers was the biggest thing,” Capel said. “Coming into this game, the last four games Kihei had 29 assists and seven turnovers. We were able to do some things, changed some coverages up a little in how we wanted to defend them.”

The fact that Virginia dipped into a mysterious, but almost predictable scoring drought, nearly six minutes during a critical stretch of the second half, didn’t help. Meanwhile, Pitt was in the midst of a 19-3 run to take its first lead of the game.

Blame it on Shedrick’s absence, on the scoring drought, on turnovers if you will, but Bennett believed that despite all those shortcomings, had Virginia played the kind of defense he expects, the kind the Cavaliers displayed in Atlanta only days before, his team would have survived Pittsburgh.

Now, it’s on to Syracuse, which comes to town Saturday with its patented zone defense.

Asked about facing it, Bennett refused to bend on his thoughts.

“Better sure tighten up the defense or it won’t matter,” he said.

Bennett was right.