Virginia’s Record-Setting Defense Crushes Another Opponent At JPJ

By Jerry Ratcliffe

File photo by John Markon

For 11th-ranked Virginia, it was just another day at the office. For visiting JMU, it was 40 minutes of hell. Well, at least 20 minutes.

“I thought we answered the bell,” Coach Louis Rowe said about his Dukes after they hung with the host Cavaliers for most of the first half, trailing 31-23 at the break.

It was actually 22-20 with just under five minutes remaining in that half. If you’re a Virginia fan, you’ve come to expect a somewhat tight first half, then Tony Bennett goes and makes adjustments, followed by a CAVALANCHE.

Virginia opened with an 18-3 run to bury the Dukes, 65-34. JMU made only four — that’s not a typo — four baskets the entire second half as the “Pack-Line” devoured another victim. The Cavaliers (2-0, 1-0 ACC) have held their first two opponents (Syracuse four nights ago) to fewer than 40 points for the first time in the shot-clock era and since the 1943-44 season, if you care to go back that far.

“We came out in the second half and it got downhill,” the JMU coach said. “[UVA] got some offensive rebounds and some second-chance baskets. We had been holding them a little bit. They were missing some shots, which is really all you can ask. We were walking back to the locker room (at the half), saying, ‘Guys, we’re in it, we’re in it.’”

And then Bennett and his staff did their thing, and it was a quick death for the Dukes.

Virginia outscored JMU 34-11 in the second half in a runaway that gave the Cavaliers their 74th win against visiting nonconference opponents in 80 games during the Bennett era. The Dukes’ 11 second-half points were the fewest for an opponent in a half in the history of John Paul Jones Arena (Georgia Tech had 12 in 2015).

Bennett said he believes his team’s length bothered the Dukes, who were minus their best big man, 6-8 Dwight Wilson, who was injured. Bothered might have been an understatement.

UVA outscored the Dukes 38-6 in the paint, had 46 rebounds, 20 second-chance points. It became so lopsided in the second half that Bennett sent two of his managers — Grant Kersey and Matt Palumbo — to the locker room late in the game to change into game uniforms to finish the final two minutes.

“They ratcheted everything up,” Coach Rowe said afterward. “They turned it up at every level. The “Pack-Line’ got tighter, forced us to taking a bunch of outside shots (JMU was 4 for 24 from beyond the arc for the game, 1 for 10 in the second half). Every time we got to the rim, their size and athleticism affected everything. They’re really good at what they do.”

Without Wilson, JMU didn’t have the size to match UVA’s length. Even with Wilson, the Dukes were outmanned in that area, and as much as Rowe tried to prepare them for what they were facing, there’s really nothing that got them ready for what they ran into on the court.

“We were as prepared as you can be for a good team with the kind of size that we won’t see again,” Rowe said. “We don’t have Jay Huff (seven-foot) and Mamadi Diakite (a leaping 6-9) on our scout team.

“Virginia is relentless and so disciplined. It’s really hard when you get on the court for 40 minutes against guys like that.”

It was the second straight game to open the season that reigning national champion Virginia surrendered but 34 points. While many, including Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and former Cavalier guard Kyle Guy, both have commented this might be a better defense than last year’s champions, Bennett isn’t ready to declare that notion.

“It’s too small of a sample size,” Bennett said. “I know we have to play good defense and as I told them before the game, it’s not always going to be pretty but it has to be gritty.”

Gritty, it was.

Offensively, the Cavaliers have a ways to go. Every Wahoo fan knew that it would be a challenge to fill the void of Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, all wearing professional jerseys.

UVA shot just under 40 percent (26 of 66) and for the second consecutive outing, less than 20 percent from the arc (4 for 24).

Everyone also understood that this was going to be a frontcourt-dominated team and that has been exactly where the Cavaliers’ points have come from in the first two games.

Diakite scored a career-high 19 points, 16 of those in the first half, to lead the onslaught, while Braxton Key (with half of UVA’s 3-pointers) had 14 from his forward spot. Huff, who had only three points at the break, finished with 11.

Both Diakite and Key posted double-doubles, (Diakite 19 points, 13 rebounds; Key 14 and 10), making it back-to-back games with two Cavaliers going double-double.

Other than the 3-point shortcomings, UVA was a little sloppy with the ball, committing 10 turnovers, which will give Bennett something to chirp about in practice until the Cavaliers take the court again next Saturday vs. visiting Columbia.

It wasn’t a great night for sophomore Kody Stattmann, who went 2 for 9 from the floor and 0 for 6 from the arc, nor freshman Casey Morsell, who was 0 for 9 and 0 for 5 from deep.

“I told the guys if it’s a good shot, you have to take shots at times, even if you miss them,” Bennett said. “It hurt us that Tomas (Woldetensae, a juco sharpshooter, who was wearing a boot on the bench) wasn’t available. He’s a guy that is capable in practice of knocking down some shots.

“We knew our backcourt was going to be thin but we finally got into the lane and got some penetration and had some stuff at the basket as opposed to standing like scarecrows around the perimeter and not looking to attack, but we’ll keep working.”

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