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Spanish Adventure Off to Promising Start

Austin Nichols

Aug. 12, 2016

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GETAFE, Spain-- While his teammates put up shots inside, Darius Thompson stepped out of the stifling gym for a few moments. As he enjoyed the evening breeze in this Madrid suburb, the University of Virginia guard marveled at his surroundings.

"Crazy how far basketball can take you," Thompson said. "It takes you all over the world."

Four years ago, on their first such trip under head coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers traveled to the Netherlands, Belgium and France on a summer tour that included five games against European teams.

This summer finds a new generation of Wahoos in Europe. This time the `Hoos are in Spain, where they'll play five games under FIBA rules, which include a 24-second shot clock, before heading home late next week.

The first two games were Wednesday and Thursday in Pabellón Felipe Reyes, a venue with seating for about 100, including the coaches and players on the sidelines. The opponent each night was the Madrid Generals, a local team made up of players from Spanish professional leagues, among them 6-10 forward Ivan Cruz Uceda, who as a Miami Hurricane faced UVA three times in 2015-16 (and went 5 for 10 from 3-point range).

The crowd for each game included several Europe-based fans of Virginia.

"Let's go, `Hoos!" shouted Scott Grimmer, who has two degrees from the University, before the opening tip Wednesday night.

 

 

The Cavaliers arrived in Madrid early Tuesday and went through a light practice late that afternoon at Pabellón Felipe Reyes, a building named for a star from the Real Madrid club who now plays for the Spanish national team.

Afterward, UVA assistant coach Brad Soderberg acknowledged that the first game would be enlightening for all concerned. Not only were the Cavaliers unsure of what to expect from the Generals, they weren't sure how they'd look themselves after losing four rotation players (Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte) from a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.

"It's a different team," Bennett said.

Several veterans -- senior London Perrantes, redshirt juniors Devon Hall and Thompson, and juniors Marial Shayok and Isaiah Wilkins -- are back for UVA. But the Cavaliers' roster also includes four freshmen (Kyle Guy, Jay Huff, De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome), as well as two players who sat out last season: redshirt junior Austin Nichols, a transfer from Memphis, and redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite.

"The purpose of the trip, from my perspective, is to get game minutes for the guys who've never put on a Virginia uniform, and for the ones who have but haven't gotten a lot of minutes," Soderberg said. "We pretty much know what London's doing to do. We pretty much know what Isaiah's going to do. But what about [Kyle] Guy, what about Mamadi, and so on and so forth?"

The two games in Madrid supplied some answers. The Cavaliers cruised to a 92-81 victory in the first and rallied for a 78-76 win in the second. Each night, Bennett rested three of his scholarship players: Diakite, Huff and Jerome on Wednesday; Perrantes, Wilkins and redshirt sophomore Jack Salt on Thursday.

Virginia platooned two units for most of each game. Shayok, Hall, Perrantes, Wilkins and Nichols played roughly the first half of each 10-minute quarter on Wednesday, and Hunter, Guy, Salt, Thompson and sophomore Jarred Reuter the second half.

In the rematch, Bennett started Nichols, Thompson, Guy, Diakite and Hunter, then subbed in Hall, Jerome, Reuter, Huff and Shayok. Late in the game Thursday, after Madrid rallied to take the lead, Bennett was tempted to insert some of his more experienced players. That's when Perrantes, sitting near Bennett on the bench, spoke up.

"London said, `No, let these young guys go,' " Bennett recalled. "So I thought that was good ... I just love to have those young guys out there getting that experience."

With youth, of course, sometimes comes poor decision-making. With about 4:10 to play Thursday, UVA had the ball and a five-point lead. But an ill-advised lob pass by Jerome resulted in a turnover, and the Generals went on a 9-3 run to take a 73-72 lead with 2:10 remaining.

A 6-5 guard from New Rochelle, N.Y., Jerome hates making mental mistakes and unforced turnovers, "and that was both," he said after the game. "It was a really bad play, but as much as I would have liked to kick myself, I didn't really have time."

Jerome redeemed himself. With 1:50 left, his 3-pointer from the top of the key put Virginia back on top, 75-73. Then, on the Cavaliers' final possession, Hall drove from the right wing into the lane and fired a pass out to Jerome in the left corner. Jerome calmly hit a trey to make it 78-76.

He'd missed other open looks earlier in the game, Jerome noted, but "Coach Bennett just said, `Stay confident, move in a little bit and keep shooting,' and all the guys kept encouraging me."

On the game's final possession, the 6-9 Diakite leaped toward the left corner to challenge a 3-point attempt. The Generals' shot missed the mark as time expired, a fitting end for a UVA program whose trademark under Bennett has been stout defense.

"That last play, that reminded me of an Akil [Mitchell] or a Darion [Atkins]," Bennett said, "where we switched a ball screen and [Diakite] was so quick and bothered a shot."

Like the Cavaliers' other young players, Diakite sparkled at times and struggled at others. "He's so active, and he's so quick," Bennett said. "He just has to learn, and we use this saying a lot: Discipline comes first, and then the freedom will come after that."

Trips abroad can help accelerate the learning process for young players. All of the Cavaliers' newcomers, Bennett said, "need to have these experiences and be in these situations, because you can see some of the rawness. But absolutely they did nice things, and I was happy to see them get some valuable minutes in a game where it was tight and you had to make some plays."

In a gym that was noticeably cooler than on the previous night, the 6-5 Shayok and the 6-9 Nichols each scored 14 points to lead Virginia on Thursday. This victory did not come easily for the Cavaliers, who, after bolting to a 20-10 lead in the opening quarter, found themselves trailing 40-37 at the break.

"I wasn't impressed in the first half with how we played," Bennett said. "There were a couple good individual plays, but I thought it was a little unsound and lacked the focus that was required, even though we're not going to be perfect."

Virginia played better in the second half, though the sharp-shooting Generals rarely offered much resistance when they didn't have the ball.

"We don't play teams like this in America," Bennett said. "These are unique teams, with their ability to shoot as well as they do and stretch [the floor] and their craftiness, but they're not real interested on the defensive end, so it's a little bit of a fool's gold kind of thing. You can get easy shots.

"What I didn't think our guys understood -- and we're working on that, especially with the young guys, but the older ones too -- is the value of each possession. Mistakes will happen, but that was the thing I challenged them and talked the most about [afterward Thursday]: You have to learn how to value each possession offensively and defensively."

In the opener Wednesday, Guy, a 6-3 guard from Indianapolis, and Nichols scored 17 points apiece to lead Virginia. For Nichols, who transferred to UVA last summer, it might not have counted as an official college game, but "it was close enough for me," he said. "After sitting out a year, I wanted to get out there."

At Memphis, Nichols averaged 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots per game in 2014-15, and he's an important piece for the Cavaliers, who lost their top two low-post scorers in Gill and Tobey.

"I'm just here to do whatever I can to help the team out," Nichols said.

After a year in the UVA program, much of it spent working with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis, Nichols has made clear strides.

"I can definitely say that I have improved, whether it's shooting, bulking up, getting stronger, or my [basketball] IQ," he said, "just being in the right spaces on the court. I think just about every aspect of my game has improved, and that's just from being in the gym and working."

There's been more pleasure than work for the `Hoos on this trip, which above all is an opportunity for players (and coaches) to experience cultures they would not typically encounter.

On Thursday, after stopping by Las Ventas, a 25,000-seat stadium in which bull fights are held, the team toured Spain's royal palace.

On Wednesday, the Cavaliers received a private tour of the vast, opulent training facility used by the Real Madrid soccer and basketball clubs.

"This is crazy," Diakite said while checking out the pitches and living areas used by such stars as Cristiano Ronaldo.

Later Wednesday, the team toured Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, where Real Madrid, one of the world's storied soccer clubs, plays its home games.

"What a great day," Bennett said. "What we got to experience today, that's the stuff of a lifetime ... That was wonderful. I think that was a highlight for all these guys, and it was good to cap it off with some good play."

The importance of soccer in this country was a revelation to some of the Virginia players. The focus on fútbol Wednesday sparked a debate among members of the UVA traveling party: Who's better, Real Madrid's Ronaldo or FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi?

"I don't watch enough soccer [to know], but Ronaldo's my guy in FIFA," Jerome said, smiling, "so I'm going to go with Ronaldo."

GAME 1

Virginia 18 22 27 25 -- 92

Madrid 21 16 31 13 -- 81

UVA scoring: Guy 17, Nichols 17, Shayok 12, Thompson 9, Perrantes 9, Hall 6, Hunter 6, Salt 6, Reuter 6, Wilkins 4.

GAME 2

Virginia 26 11 17 24 -- 78

Madrid 20 20 15 21 -- 76

UVA scoring: Shayok 14, Nichols 14, Hunter 12, Jerome 10, Diakite 9, Hall 5, Guy 4, Huff 4, Reuter 4, Thompson 2.

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jwhite@virginia.edu

A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.

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