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Selfless Effort Propels 'Hoos in Latest Win

Nigel Johnson

Dec. 2, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Final exams are approaching at the University of Virginia, and John Paul Jones Arena will be much quieter over the next couple of weeks. But on Saturday afternoon there was a festive atmosphere inside JPJ as the UVA men's basketball team stayed unbeaten with a 75-54 victory over Lehigh.

The final three of the 18th-ranked Cavaliers' 30 field goals came on dunks off lob passes, to the delight of the matinee crowd. UVA's head coach, Tony Bennett, didn't object to the slams, but he was more impressed with two numbers that stood out on the box score: his team's 21 assists and six turnovers.

No UVA player had more than two turnovers Saturday. Three Wahoos had at least four assists each, led by graduate transfer Nigel Johnson, with a career-high eight.

"It's an unselfish group, and you can see that," Bennett said.

Johnson, who previously played at Kansas State and Rutgers, is in his first season at UVA. Before Saturday, he'd never had more than four assists in a game for the `Hoos, but against Lehigh (4-4) he set up teammates for jumpers and dunks and layups.

 

 

"I was just seeing the plays develop before they happened," Johnson said. "The game was moving a lot slower. It got to a point where I was just feeding everybody. It was so exciting that I didn't really even want to shoot it any more. I was just looking for the extra pass and trying to set people up and just taking what was there."

The Cavaliers (8-0) are not known for pushing the ball in transition, but they scored 12 fast-break points Saturday. Johnson played a key role in several of those baskets. No. 23 has "the speed and the quickness that kind of energizes us," Bennett said.

When Johnson "can get in transition and make plays, that's when he's at his best," UVA guard Kyle Guy said.

Senior forward Isaiah Wilkins said the Cavaliers are looking to run more this season. Point guard London Perrantes, now a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was "not the fastest dude, so we played at his pace," Wilkins said, with a huge smile.

"This year, we're trying to get out and run a little bit more with Nigel, Devon [Hall] and Kyle pushing the ball."

A 6-2 sophomore, Guy needed five stitches on his shooting hand to close a cut he suffered in practice Friday. He played with his right hand taped Saturday, but that didn't deter him against the Mountain Hawks. He was 7 for 12 from the floor -- 5 for 9 from beyond the 3-point arc -- and scored a team-high 21 points. He also had three of the Cavaliers' 11 steals.

"He was moving well and he had his rhythm," Bennett said of Guy. "He's a weapon, for sure, and a threat when he's on the floor."

Also scoring in double figures for UVA, which shot 51.7 percent from the floor, were Wilkins (14 points) and fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall (11). Wilkins and Hall combined for 11 rebounds and four steals as well.

The Cavaliers weren't as suffocating as usual on defense -- Lehigh made 10 of 24 shots from beyond the arc -- but they forced 17 turnovers and turned them into 24 points.

"We had had a lot of breakdowns," Guy said, "but we tried to be in the gap and anticipate, which we work on every day in practice, and I think that showed."

UVA's reserves outscored their Lehigh counterparts 22-10. Redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite and redshirt freshman swingman De'Andre Hunter had six points apiece off the bench for the Cavaliers, and Johnson and redshirt freshman forward Jay Huff contributed five each.

The 6-7 Hunter, who was celebrating his birthday, also had four assists, three rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot in his 22 minutes. One of his assists came on a less-than-perfect lob to the 6-9 Diakite, who wasn't fazed by the high pass. Diakite soared to snare the ball with his right hand and then slammed it through the hoop to make it 75-52.

His message to Hunter, Bennett said, was to "be as great as you can defensively, and let it come offensively. We got him in the post on a couple actions. He established it first defensively and did some good things. Again, his length and his ability to guard different guys helps us out. I thought it was another step in the right direction for Dre."

WHAT'S NEXT? In its final game before the exam break, UVA plays Tuesday night at No. 19 West Virginia (7-1). ESPNU will televise the 7 o'clock game.

The series is tied 9-9. In Charlottesville last season, WVU rallied for a 66-57 win over the Cavaliers.

Head coach Bob Huggins' Mountaineers, who press from start to finish, forced 14 turnovers at JPJ and shot 57.1 percent from the floor in the second half.

"They're tough, they're good," Bennett said Saturday, "and I know they put a lot of pressure on you, so it'll be another test."

Guy said WVU will "get after us, and we're just going to have to be ball-strong and take care of business."

Huff's mother played basketball at West Virginia, and she'll be at the game Tuesday night in Morgantown.

"It'll be pretty fun," Huff said. "I'm looking forward to it."

VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: Johnson is more familiar with West Virginia than any of his UVA teammates are. When he was at Kansas State, he played four games against the Mountaineers.

"So I know exactly what they're going to do," Johnson said Saturday.

The key to handling the Mountaineers' vaunted full-court pressure, Johnson said, is to "stay patient and don't let them overwhelm you. The trick for me for beating the press was just to keep the ball in the middle. Don't let it get to the sides. When you get the ball on the sides, right near halfcourt, that's when they really try to choke it out and get turnovers."

On playing at 14,000-seat WVU Coliseum, Johnson said, "They get a little crazy in there, the atmosphere's a little crazy, but that's what college basketball is all about, that's what college sports is all about. It makes it a lot more fun to play."

WORK IN PROGRESS: The 7-1 Huff, whom Bennett did not use in Virginia's previous two games, played 12 minutes against Lehigh.

"I just tell him, `Don't get discouraged,' " Bennett said. "All of these guys -- [true freshman] Marco [Anthony], Jay -- they're used to being the main guy on their high school team, and then they step into this and it's a change.

"I shared the Frank Kaminsky story with Jay before we played Wisconsin. I said, `There's a young man who his first couple years wasn't much.' I said, `Just keep developing, keep growing.' "

Huff, who made 7 of 8 shots from the floor and scored 16 points in his UVA debut this month, "practiced better the last couple days," Bennett said. "We thought there was a matchup [against Lehigh], and that's why I used him. He did a solid job. It was good for him. You can see the highlights, running in transition and tip-dunking and all that, but it's in the meat and potatoes and the substance [on which] all these young guys have to keep working and being solid, and that's where they earn their time as the season progresses."

THEY SAID IT: Available for interviews after the game were Bennett, Guy, Wilkins, Johnson, Huff and Lehigh's head coach, Dr. Brett Reed. Among their comments:

* Bennett on sophomore point guard Ty Jerome, who scored only three points but had four assists and no turnovers: "I told him, `Lead this team.' It was basically, `You be a fierce leader and keep everybody else in line. You start with that and be who you are that way. And that's getting guys involved. When the shot's there, take it.' "

* Reed on Guy: "He has an unbelievably quick release, and he's able to turn and square his body in the air extremely well. That complements that release. It was also really impressive the amount of effort that he put into his cuts, because when he takes a cut, he sprints his cut to try to get that separation.

"He's an excellent player surrounded by an excellent team that really works as a team. Kyle Guy doesn't get the shots that he gets if not [for] the screening of their post players and the delivery of the ball, on-time and on-target. And I think that's a signature of Virginia basketball: to be really grounded, fundamental, five guys helping each other, not only on defense but on offense as well."

* Reed on the challenge of facing UVA: "Not only do you have to be fundamental and execute your fundamentals, but you also have an element of mental toughness. Because if you don't continue to work through an entire shot clock on defense, Virginia will expose you. And if you're not disciplined enough to execute at the highest level, Virginia will expose you."

* Guy on how, after picking up his second foul in the first half, he tried to persuade Bennett to leave him in the game: "I told him I could be smart with two fouls and just to keep me in, but he said, `You weren't very smart on that foul.' So took he out of the game. Touché."

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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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