Virginia humiliates Hurricanes for 23rd-straight home win

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Tony Bennett didn’t talk to his Virginia team about tournament resume building prior to Big Monday’s big beatdown of Miami. Bennett had taken care of that four games ago when the Cavaliers’ entire season was seemingly on the line at Louisville.

Message received, loud and clear. Just like they did at Louisville, Bennett’s team came out like a rolling ball of butcher knives on Monday and carved up a good Miami team, 60-38, and extended the nation’s longest active home winning streak (23 games) in the process. It was UVA’s seventh-straight win overall and kept the Cavaliers alone in second place in the ACC.

With 21 NBA scouts looking on, Virginia’s suffocating defense cut the Hurricanes to ribbons and held Miami to its lowest score since late December of 1948, a year before 74-year old ‘Canes coach Jim Larrañaga was born in The Bronx.

Larrañaga was so frustrated that he answered one question in the media room postgame, got up and walked out.

“They outplayed us in every aspect of the game,” Larrañaga said before his hurried exit.

He had to be embarrassed. Miami had been playing better of late, putting up 56 points in the second half alone in a comeback win against Virginia Tech only two days ago. In 14 of the previous 16 meetings with UVA, those were settled by 10 points or less.

Bennett described it as “Virginia basketball on both ends of the floor … a real complete performance.” The coach was spot-on.

Once the Cavaliers got rolling, Miami had no chance (for a complete blow-by-blow account, full box score and game notebook, see our game story).

An early 23-4 run put the Hurricanes on their heels for the rest of the night as Virginia’s defense choked the life out of Miami’s scoring threats, while Reece Beekman (16 points, 7 assists) and Jake Groves (12 points, 5 of 9 shooting) supplied the offensive spark to advance the Cavaliers to 18-5, 9-3 in the league.

Larrañaga burned timeouts at a Gillen-esque rate over the course of the game in an attempt to slow down the onslaught, but nothing worked.

“We were right,” Bennett said in the understatement of the night.

It was a continuation of dominant basketball from the Cavaliers, who were mired in a four-game road losing streak — a streak in which they were outscored by a collective 80 points — from late December to mid-January before Bennett’s team transformed into one of the hottest teams in college hoops.

The coach cautioned fans that the Cavaliers of November and December would not be the same in February and March.

Defensively, Monday night was a masterpiece, frustrating Miami’s shooters into a 28.6-percent performance (14 of 49 from the field) and a putrid 10 percent from the 3-point arc (2 of 20). The Hurricanes had almost as many turnovers (11) as field goals (14).

Bennett was asked to rank the defensive domination afterward and he said that one of these days, when he’s long gone from the game, he’ll dust off the scrapbook and try to put a label on it. For Monday night, he was just enjoying the ride.

“I think [defense] has been part of this resurgence of our team,” Bennett said. “Our defense has gotten a little more stingy and a little more connected. You have to have an iron will and a mindset in how you practice. They found an identity and it has to stick that way.”

For a coach whose own identity is intertwined with defense, Monday night had to be euphoric.

Even since Bennett’s talk with his team prior to its game at Louisville a couple of weeks ago, the Cavaliers have made a steady climb in the ACC standings and the assorted metrics that measure success in college basketball.

Their NET rankings have moved from the high 60s down to No. 42 prior to Monday’s win. Bracketologists are beginning to move them onto the proverbial “bubble” to actually into the 68-team field.

“We talked about, probably four games ago,” Bennett said. “Look, we’re trying to find ourselves in a spot where we have a chance to be considered at the end of the year, so every game is important. Are they must-wins? I don’t know, but just show up and play like there’s no tomorrow.”

That’s exactly what his team has done, as it has continued the process of improving defensively, players are embracing their roles, Bennett has shortened his rotation and the result is that they’ve been unstoppable of late.

Having played three games over the past six days, the Wahoos, a little weathered health-wise and a little battered physically, catch a break and don’t play again until they travel to Tallahassee this weekend to take on Florida State.