Wahoos’ mental wardrobe change at halftime sparks dramatic come-from-behind effort at Michigan

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

There was nothing like a quick wardrobe change and some textbook Tony Bennett halftime adjustments to get No. 3 Virginia refocused in a dramatic comeback at Michigan on Tuesday night in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

The Cavaliers, noted for their defensive prowess, found themselves trailing the unranked Wolverines by 11 points in a hostile road environment at the break. Michigan, which had played shoddy defense and struggled to make shots while stumbling to a 5-1 record coming in, suddenly couldn’t miss.

Ranked No. 205 nationally in 3-point percentage, the Big Blue became red hot from both inside and beyond the arc. Michigan made 61.3 percent of its shots in the first half and 54 percent (7 of 13) from downtown Ann Arbor.

Bennett didn’t like what he was seeing from his team. It was too passive. Too “finessey,” a word the UVA coach once used to describe his team, which was a nicer way of saying they weren’t playing physical enough.

Having been raised in Big Ten territory, he knew his team had to toughen up for the second half, and resorted to an old saying from his pop — former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett — about taking off the tuxedos at halftime. That’s exactly what the Cavaliers did.

“Meaning, we didn’t want to get kind of gritty and dirty … it was just, we were proper,” Bennett said afterward.

This was physical Big Ten basketball, kinda like the days of the Big East. No blood, no foul. Well, in this case, there was blood and still no foul.

Just ask UVA center Kadin Shedrick, who took giant Hunter Dickinson’s elbow to the grill and was decked to the floor for an extended period and left the game with a bloody mouth. Get this … Shedrick was called for a foul on the play, his fifth personal, and had fouled out.

Virginia, now 6-0, did shed the tuxes in the locker room, and emerged a different animal, making six-straight shots on a 14-5 run that caused Michigan coach Juwan Howard to call a cooling time out.

Nobody — I mean nobody — in the game makes consistently better halftime adjustments than Bennett, and this was another sample.

“We fought [Dickinson’s] catches (more doubling the post when the ball came inside) and we put a little more pressure on the ball on the perimeter,” Bennett said.

Dickinson had been a major problem in the first half, and even though he finished with a game-high 23 points, seven rebounds, five blocks, and nearly fouled out the entire Virginia front line with his physical presence, the Cavaliers didn’t let him beat them.

Applying more pressure on Michigan’s guards was a good plan. Other than Jett Howard, Juwan’s freshman son, the rest of Michigan’s shooters had simply been gawd awful from beyond the arc coming in.

The Wolverines were only 1 of 6 on triples in the second half and didn’t get a lot of room to shoot 3’s.

“That was the difference,” Bennett said, knowing his team had to get control of Michigan’s 3-point shooting in the second half. “Once we made it harder, I knew it was going to come down to making a play and a possession down the stretch.”

How prophetic.

Michigan made only one field goal over an eight-minute stretch of the second half and yet still clung to the lead. Virginia, thanks to a seven-point scoring spurt by Ben Vander Plas, finally caught and passed the Wolverines at 60-60, then 65-60 on his 3-pointer, with 5:16 to play.

Then came the play and the possession Bennett was talking about.

Dickinson missed a running hook with a minute left, with U-M ahead, 66-65.

Then Jayden Gardner knocked down a patented mid-range jumper before Reece Beekman, heavily-taped ankle and all, made the play of the game, taking the ball from Llewellyn and was intentionally fouled by Howard. Beekman made one of his two free throws (68-66) and UVA kept possession, leading to two Kihei Clark free throws (70-66) with 14 seconds left.

Dickinson scored with 6.9 seconds to play and Michigan immediately fouled Armaan Franklin, who missed both free throws with 5.7 seconds to go. The Wolverines got the ball to Howard for a 3-point attempt right in front of the Michigan bench, but Beekman rushed him and Gardner blocked the shot as the buzzer sounded.

“The turnover, yes, down the stretch, it hurt, but overall that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame,” Juwan Howard said. “We could’ve easily put our heads down when [Virginia] came out in the second half and made a run.”

Howard should have expected as much. It was the fourth time in six games UVA has trailed in the second half, including the amazing turnaround against Baylor when the Cavaliers started the second half on a 20-5 run.

Virginia’s defense clamped down bigtime against Michigan, holding the Wolverines to only 23 points on 38.9-percent shooting, 16.7 percent from the 3-point line.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers shot 50.9 percent for the game, the third straight outing of 50 percent or better, and the sixth straight game with 70 or more points. The last time a UVA team started the season like that was in 2003-04, when Pete Gillen’s squad scored 70 or more in each of the first eight games of the year.

Beekman, who rolled his ankle and was heavily taped by veteran trainer Ethan Saliba, wasn’t nearly as effective scoring the final 15 minutes of the game (only one free throw), but still led the team with 18 points and five assists.

Clark had 16 and 4 assists, Shedrick 12, Gardner 12 and 11 rebounds, Vander Plas 10.

The Wahoos now get a bit of a break, not playing again until opening ACC play at home on Saturday against Florida State. Michigan plays against Kentucky in London, then faces North Carolina.

Bennett has banned tuxedos for the rest of the season.