Virginia returns from extended road trip with heightened senses of poise, confidence
The transformation took three weeks and roughly 11,500 miles of travel, but the Virginia men’s basketball team enters Tuesday night’s game against Radford – its first at home since Nov. 15 – armed with degrees of poise and confidence it did not possess upon initial departure for its six-game road trip.
At the insistence of their coach, the Cavaliers placed their growth on display Sunday evening during a 57-54 win at Virginia Tech, though it was evident as much in the decisions they made en route to the victory as it was in the triumph itself. Virginia generated a sizeable early advantage and remained steadfast in its composure despite the fissures that arose during a second half during which the Hokies expectedly made their run.
The Cavaliers scored 21 points and shot 36.4 percent from the field after halftime, and yet, what once was a 16-point lead did not completely disintegrate. For a squad reliant upon youth and several relatively inexperienced veterans, such facts – at least at this point in the season – can be labeled as progress, especially when measured against the previous results of similar circumstances.
“I think they’ve settled down a little bit,” Coach Tony Bennett said Sunday night of his Cavaliers, who are 5-3 and 1-0 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. “They understand that how we’re going to have a chance to be in games and be competitive is making teams play against our set defense.”
Virginia was not equipped with such knowledge at this point a month ago. At the first stop on their trip, the Cavaliers trailed Stanford by two points with 14 minutes to play, yet ended up losing by 21. Poor transition defense, an abundance of turnovers and deficient rebounding were the primary culprits.
From there, Virginia traveled to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational and was welcomed with a 43-point defeat at the hands of then-No. 13 Washington. The Cavaliers, players have since acknowledged, play timidly against the Huskies, and many of the same ills that plagued them at Stanford surfaced yet again.
Washington “sped us up,” Bennett said. “We’d get one quick shot, and it was like we were trying to get into a track meet with them. We have to run opportunistically. I want to do that, but when it’s not there – defenses have to be broken down with side-top-side reversal and give (senior forward) Mike (Scott) a chance to get some touches and play off of Mike and have a little more composure and soundness with the ball.”
Scott has spoken since the preseason about being a more well-rounded player that could perform consistently, no matter the quality of opposition. And yet, against Washington he did not score in the second half and tallied just four rebounds and no assists.
Since then, Scott not only has evolved rapidly into the form he and the team desired, he has made a conscious effort to pull teammates along with him. Scott – Virginia’s lone weathered and fully healthy veteran – has registered four straight double-doubles since the Washington debacle and has recorded 2-3 assists in each of those four contests.
“Just trying to be aggressive on the offensive end,” Scott said Sunday after finishing with 21 points and 13 rebounds in 38 minutes in Virginia’s first win at Virginia Tech since the 2005-06 season. “Not try to force anything, but also trying to have that aggressive mind-set and be aggressive on the defensive end.”
The rest of the Cavaliers have followed Scott’s lead, though at a slightly less rapid rate of development. Virginia blew a 16-point first-half lead against Wichita State in what became a 12-point loss Nov. 24. Again, the Cavaliers were sped up, though Bennett believed less so than in the loss to Washington two days earlier.
“We was ironing out the wrinkles,” sophomore guard Jontel Evans said. “But now everything is getting better. Everybody’s tuned in to what we’re trying to do, and everything is coming together so far.”
At then-No. 15 Minnesota on Nov. 29, the Cavaliers turned a 13-point second-half deficit into a 14-point lead. Virginia remained in contention early on and surged to win by eight in large part due to a renewed devotion to transition defense and 23 points from senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan, who played sparingly during his first two collegiate seasons.
Prior to Sunday’s game at Virginia Tech, Bennett challenged his players to prove to him that they had learned during the previous three weeks. And so the Cavaliers tallied just 10 turnovers, claimed the rebounding edge and upheld the lead by refusing to become overwhelmed by the high stakes of the moment in the game’s latter stages.
Farrakhan attempted just four shots, but he also tallied five rebounds, five assists, two steals, two blocks and no turnovers. Evans fired an in-bound pass that traveled more than half the court to Scott with 19.4 seconds remaining in order to beat Virginia Tech’s full-court press.
On the final play of the game, the Hokies got the ball in transition to senior guard Dorenzo Hudson, who fired a potentially game-tying three-point attempt with two seconds to play. Freshman guard Joe Harris had retreated quickly, though, and was there to tip Hudson’s shot. The ball fell short of the rim, and Virginia escaped with its second consecutive unexpected win.
“I just put my hand up and he kind of just shot it,” Harris said. “I wasn’t too worried about fouling or anything. I just kept my hand straight up.”
| December 6, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories: Men's Basketball
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