Bennett: Houston lesson learned, forget the offense, the toughest defenses survive

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Tony Bennett said he scheduled a gauntlet of some of the nation’s best college basketball teams to prepare Virginia for the ACC season, willing to put his team at risk in the early goings.

Until Saturday, the No. 2 Cavaliers had escaped unscathed, having slayed Baylor and Illinois in a Las Vegas event, then Michigan on the road, before finally falling to fifth-ranked Houston, the highest-ranked nonconference team to have ever played in Charlottesville (see related game story, box score, notes).

The more athletic Cougars, who spent some time as the nation’s No. 1 team until a loss to Alabama a week ago, may not have resembled the Phi Slama Jama teams of Houston lore, but they made life difficult for a UVA team that couldn’t score when it needed to most. As a result, the Coogs pulled off a 69-61 win and flexed their muscles as the nation’s best defensive team against a Virginia program that has built its success on resistance.

“You’re not going to win ‘em all, and this was a high-level opponent,” Bennett said after the Cavaliers dropped to 8-1 on the season. “You get a lot out of [these games], like where do we have to tighten the screws?”

Bennett believes heading into ACC play — UVA travels to No. 25 Miami on Tuesday — that his team needs to buckle down more on defense. Yes, his team didn’t shoot it well against talented Houston, only 42 percent from the field (20 of 48) and a shoddy, season-low 22 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“I can live with missed shots,” Bennett said. “Anytime you break down [defensively] they made us pay, whether it was just fell asleep or we didn’t help a guy out in the coverage. That was the part where I think we can learn from and grow from.”

There was no greater example of Bennett’s point than late in the game when Virginia fought back from an 11-point deficit after Kihei Clark picked the pocket of Houston point guard Jamal Shead for an easy layup, cutting the lead to 54-48.

Virginia forced another Cougars turnover on the next possession as the lid nearly came off sold-out John Paul Jones Arena (14,629) with a timeout coming at 3:42.

It was almost like a scene out of Hoosiers, with freshman sharpshooter Isaac McKneely coming out of the timeout and launching a 3-pointer. But it rattled in and out.

Instead of UVA cutting it to three, Houston exploited the Cavaliers’ defense with Shead racing past final defender Kadin Shedrick for a layup, followed by a Tramon Mark 3-pointer and a Jarace Walker jumper for an 11-point Cougars bulge with only 1:41 to play.

While both Bennett: “[McKneeley’s] shot was right there, who who knows…” — and McKneeley: “I’d like to think the outcome would have been a little different if I had made that shot,” — pondered what might have been had that 3-pointer fallen, the coach still blamed the defensive lapses for the outcome.

“I go back to a couple of our defensive lapses,” Bennett said. “They’re just little mini-fractures, and all of a sudden those cost us and I think that part of the film will be very valuable to see.

“You can’t say, well, we’re going to win when our shots start falling … no, you’ve got to win games like this with soundness and toughness mentally. The head and heart have to be connected on the defensive end and not lose focus. That won’t work, and that’s a great teaching lesson for us. Today, the tougher, sounder team on the defensive end of the floor won the game.”

Part of the reason Virginia’s offense was so inept was Houston’s defensive play. Coming into the game, Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson believed one of the keys was keeping UVA’s guards under control, and Houston certainly accomplished that goal.

Clark was 2 for 8, a less-than 100 percent Reece Beekman, coming off a hamstring injury, was 1 for 5, and Armaan Franklin was 3 for 6. Together, they scored 23 points (seven of those from the free-throw line). Beekman played well defensively, holding Houston’s Sasser to 13 on a 4-of-14 day, but clearly the Virginia guard didn’t have his usual explosiveness offensively, operating at what Bennett estimated was 75 or 80 percent.

Meanwhile, Ben Vander Plas had a woeful shooting performance, going Oh-for-7 for the game, six of those from the arc.

Sampson, one of the nation’s top coaches, praised his 11-1 team’s effort for coming on the road and winning a high-level game, and holding off Virginia’s surge at the end.

“I’m not sure we’re able to do that without the Alabama experience,” Sampson said. “We had 17 assists today. I’m not sure we passed the ball 17 times last Saturday. The ball moved.”

Coming on the road and getting a win at Virginia isn’t an easy task.

“It’s a big deal,” Sampson said. “I don’t know if our kids understand it, but I do.”

Bennett believes Virginia will get better from the loss and that the early-season nonconference schedule will pay dividends down the road.

So does Shedrick, who led the Cavaliers in scoring with 16 points (7 of 8 field goals).

“I think the biggest thing I learned is that we can play with anybody in the country as long as we limit those [defensive] lapses and run our offense hard,” Shedrick said.

Another one of those teams is looming in South Florida this week.