Virginia shakes off slow start defensively and discards Demon Deacons, 70-61

By Jerry Ratcliffe

kihei clark wake

ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS Virginia Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark (0) looks for an opening during a game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Jan. 6 at John Paul Jones Area. UVa defeated Wake Forest, 70-61.

Tony Bennett hasn’t been particularly happy with Virginia’s defense this early season, especially the collective second half effort. All that may be changing.

After trailing Wake Forest, a 14.5-point underdog, by a 39-35 count at halftime, the No. 22-ranked Cavaliers said enough. The Deacs had shot 63 percent in the first half (15-24) and 60 percent from the arc (6-10), leaving Wahoo fans wondering why every opponent seems to find its 3-point shooting touch against UVA.

Bennett, coaching without the majority of his staff due to Covid-19 contact tracing, made some halftime adjustments on how his team was defending ball screens and the Deacons were done.

Virginia 70, Wake 61.

The Cavaliers outscored the Deacs 36-22 in the second half and held the visitors to 38 percent shooting after the break (8-21) as Virginia whipped Wake for the ninth straight time.

“We were having trouble with the ball screen, Ismael Massoud, the way he was screening and separating was tough,” Bennett said after watching his team improve to 6-2 overall and 2-0 in the ACC. “We’ve had trouble with that, so we just tried to do a few different things.

“We tried switching some screens. We got to kind of pick our poison, so we decided to stay a little more at home on him and I though it helped us.”

Massoud, who was 3 of 4 during the Deacs’ first-half, 3-point barrage, was somewhat stifled by UVA’s defensive tactics in the second half, held to one 3-pointer the final 20 minutes and finished with 13 points.

Meanwhile, Sam Hauser was catching fire, hitting 5 of 8 field goal attempts the second half to lead five double-figure Cavaliers scorers with 16 points. Hauser was 7 of 13 for the game, and also easily led UVA in rebounding with 11, along with three assists and no turnovers in 35 minutes, 37 seconds.

All five starters finished in double digits with Hauser followed by Trey Murphy III with 13, Reece Beekman 12, Jay Huff 11 and Kihei Clark with 10.

Bennett directed the Cavaliers to play more aggressively in the second half, not only on defense, but also to attack the Deacons in the paint. They followed his orders.

UVA outscored Wake 22-4 in the paint after the break and 38-20 for the game.

While the Cavaliers turned it on the second half, and played without three of its players and most of its coaching staff, a nine-point win over one of the ACC’s cellar dwellers wasn’t that impressive. The Deacons, who have played fewer games than any team in the league, dropped to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the conference.

“Our defense stepped up,” Hauser said in the disparity between the two halves. “The defense in the first half we seemed like we were a step behind, and obviously there was an emphasis for the second half.

“In the first four minutes we really came out and asserted ourselves and cut into that lead and then eventually took the lead and our defense just kind of won us the game and the second half.”

Virginia didn’t take its first lead of the game until the 16:10 minute mark of the second half when Clark knocked down a short jump shot for a 43-41 advantage, the end of a 9-2 run right out of the locker room.

After Wake knotted it at 43-all, Huff scored inside, followed by a 3-pointer my Murphy and a 48-43 lead. The Cavaliers never looked back as UVA outscored the Deacs 15-6 over a five-minute span for a 58-49 bulge.

“We have a lot of things we had to deal with,” Bennett said, referring to a less than full bench.

Associate head coach Jason Williford and assistants Brad Soderberg, Orlando Vandross, Kyle Getter and Larry Mangino were all sidelined by contact tracing. That meant the only two members of the staff to help manage the game with Bennett were Ronnie Wideman, director for basketball operations, and Johnny Carpenter, director of player personnel.

Also missing were three players, guard Casey Morsell, who had started the previous game at Notre Dame, and reserve Austin Katstra, both due to Covid-related issues, along with Kody Stattmann, who has been sidelined with non-Covid medical issues.

“We knew we were going to have to come together,” said Bennett, whose team had to postpone its scheduled Virginia Tech game last Saturday due to the virus. “I thought we had a spirited week of practice. We just talked about let’s try to take a step in the right direction.”

The Cavaliers next game is at Boston College on Saturday.

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