Virginia looked like the Virginia of old last night. As in, the Virginia of last year.
It didn’t happen until the second half, but the Cavaliers exhibited stifling defense not seen since last season to throttle previously unbeaten West Virginia, 70-54, in the opening game of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. In the process, they held the Mountaineers to 40% shooting (30% in the second half).
To add insult to West Virginia’s injury, the Cavs also shot a blistering 74% from the field in the second half and 63% for the game to complete their most impressive performance of the young season.
After being out-worked and trailing the Mountaineers 36-30 at the intermission, Virginia coach Tony Bennett said he challenged his team in the locker room. “I just said, ‘either you’re going to respond or you’re not, and we talked about rebounding and understanding who we were.”
Crediting West Virginia’s tenacious style of play, Bennett explained, “It’s just about ‘can you try to outlast a team like this’ and we have to become like that if we’re going to take the next step.”
Virginia (8-1) came into the 2015-16 season ranked 6th in the preseason polls, coming off a historic 2014-15 season, in which the Cavs used suffocating defense – they led the nation in fewest points allowed (51.4ppg) and were third in field goal percentage defense (.367) – to win the ACC regular season and claim a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, before suffering a disappointing loss to Michigan State in the Round of 32. With three starters returning from that team, most figured the Cavs would pick up where they left off, particularly on defense.
However, UVA has struggled – albeit slightly – early this season, losing to George Washington and not playing with the defensive intensity college basketball foes and fans are used to seeing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m knit-picking a bit. Virginia has been good, but not great. In their 64-58 win over Ohio State last week, they allowed the Buckeyes to shoot a previously unheard of 50%.
One plausible disclaimer – at least for the last ten days – is that the Cavs were without point guard and leader London Perrantes for two games, which likely upset the team’s symmetry on both ends of the floor.
Well, based on Virginia’s second half performance last night, everything’s just fine in Wahoo-land now. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the ACC and the country.
Game Notes: Anthony Gill led four Cavaliers in double figures with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Jaysean Paige paced the Mountaineers with 16 points.
West Virginia’s bench out-scored Virginia’s 24-11. The Mountaineers led by as much as 12 in the first half. West Virginia (7-1) shot 6-20 from the field in the second half, including 0-7 from three-point range.
Follow Jamal Murphy on Twitter: @Blacketologist