Dec. 7, 2014
RICHMOND -- When all momentum seemed to be shifting in VCU's direction Saturday afternoon, with Treveon Graham knocking down 3-pointers and the capacity crowd shaking the Siegel Center, unbeaten Virginia responded with poise and resiliency befitting a top-10 team.
After the Rams cut a 11-point deficit to four with 6:52 left, UVa head coach Tony Bennett called a timeout. When play resumed, the seventh-ranked Cavaliers struck back at the Rams with a London Perrantes runner. And then an Evan Nolte trey.
And then two Anthony Gill free throws. And then a Justin Anderson 3-pointer. And then a Perrantes pull-up jumper. And then, for good measure, a Malcolm Brogdon trey that capped the 15-0 run and pushed the Cavaliers' lead to 74-55 with 1:47 left.
Game over. The final was 74-57.
"I love this team," said Anderson, who hit 6 of 7 shots from the floor, scored a season-high 21 points and showed no ill effects from the injury he suffered late Wednesday night in Virginia's win over Maryland in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game in College Park.
There's a lot to like about these Wahoos, who are 9-0 for the first time since 2001-02. Virginia shot 68.3-percent from the floor Saturday, outrebounded the Rams 35-21 and limited them to 38.3-percent accuracy -- all in an arena where VCU (5-3) had won its previous 22 games.
"This is a crazy environment," said Brogdon, a 6-5 redshirt junior, "but we kept [the home fans] quiet for a lot of the time. I think the crowd was a little bit surprised that we had VCU back on their heels a little bit. But VCU played a very good game too. I just thought we were able to handle their pressure, and that changes the game for them."
Early last season, when the teams met at John Paul Jones Arena, the `Hoos squandered a late lead and lost 59-56 on a last-second 3-pointer by Graham. They avoided a similar fate Saturday, largely because of such players as Perrantes, Gill, Brogdon, Nolte, Anderson and center Mike Tobey, all of whom played against VCU last season.
"You need experience, and I think that experience showed for us down the stretch," Bennett said.
Gill said: "We understood that it was time to pick it up. We have a lot of veterans on this team, and we know when it is time to get it moving. And that's what we did."
Virginia knew the Rams "were going to go on runs, and we just knew we had to outlast them," Perrantes said. "We knew that there was going to be a big, raucous crowd, we knew that coming in. Once we saw them on the schedule again this year, we knew that game was going to be circled for them."
For the Rams, this was the 53rd straight sellout at the 7,637-seat Siegel Center. The crowd was deafening at times, and never more so than when Virginia inexplicably left Graham uncovered in the left corner on three straight second-half possessions. The 6-6 senior ended each one with a trey, cutting UVa's lead to eight, to five and then, after a Gill jump hook, to four with 6:52 to play.
Coming out of the timeout, Bennett went with a smaller lineup, pulling the 7-0 Tobey and putting the 6-8 Nolte on Graham, with help from the 6-8 Gill.
"We were having trouble with that middle ball screen," Bennett said. "They were splitting it, and then pulling in our help and kicking it to Graham in the corner. We tried to talk about not getting split, and then we made an adjustment, and Evan and Anthony did a good job with that."
On an afternoon when Virginia made 28 field goals, the most important might have been the off-balance runner Perrantes put up with the shot clock winding down. It dropped through at the 5:47 mark, halting the Rams' rally. On UVa's next possession, Perrantes drove baseline and spotted Nolte open near the top of the key. Nolte's 3-pointer made it 64-55.
"That thing could have turned either way, and that was a huge momentum boost for us, to get up six, get a stop, come down and get another good look," Bennett said.
"It's a shot that I had to get off because of the time," said Perrantes, who finished with a game-high nine assists, as well as six points and two steals. "I probably wouldn't have shot that if I had a couple seconds left. But I just had to do what I had to do and take what the defense gave me."
Perrantes' basket "maybe took a little wind out of our sails," VCU coach Shaka Smart said, "and then they got great shots ... We weren't as good on defense the next two, three minutes."
The Cavaliers' halfcourt offense produced those shots, but they were equally successful against the Rams' vaunted fullcourt pressure. VCU forced 16 turnovers, but when the `Hoos succeeded in breaking the press, they usually were rewarded with layups or dunks.
"You had to score some easy buckets on the back end, when there were two-on-ones at the rim," Bennett said.
When the `Hoos had no advantage, however, Bennett wanted them to pull the ball out and run their halfcourt offense. For the most part, he said, they executed the game plan well.
"I tell our guys, they can go to the next level as a team if they can find that sweet spot of being assertive but with that level of patience," Bennett said. "That's important for us, and then never giving an inch on the defensive end."
Gill, who was scoreless against VCU last season, benefited most from UVa's more aggressive tactics Saturday. He made 7 of 9 shots from the floor and scored 18 points.
The Rams "had so much pressure on the front end, with all the guards pressuring," Gill said, "so when we did break the pass, it was just easy for us to make the dump-off pass and for me to finish. It was up to me at that point just to make the easy layup or make the dunk. The guards did a great job giving me those opportunities."
Against VCU last season, Perrantes said, UVa "kind of just wanted to beat the press and bring it out and run offense. Coach Bennett knows that we have some players that can make plays on that end, so this year he made the decision that when we get past it, go make a play.
"We played with a lot more confidence, a lot more freedom, and I feel like that helped a lot this year."
The Cavaliers were coming off a fiercely contested game at Maryland in which two of their starters -- Anderson and 6-8 senior Darion Atkins -- went down with injuries. Atkins (back) watched from the bench in street clothes Saturday, but Anderson dazzled from start to finish, hitting 3-pointers, throwing down dunks and finishing powerful drives to the basket.
"I think we're going to sprain his other ankle to get him right, if he can play like that," Bennett said, smiling. "He was terrific. I thought he really let the game come ... [There were] contributions from everyone, but that was a heck of a game for Justin."
The Cavaliers got home from College Park around 2:30 a.m. Thursday. Anderson sat out practice that afternoon, but, after rehab sessions with head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba, he was back on the court with his teammates Friday and played with his trademark athleticism and abandon.
"I told my team [Friday] night, `Guys, I just want to come back and be able to play as hard as I can just for you guys,' " Anderson said Saturday at the Siegel Center. "It wasn't even about the game that we were playing. I just wanted to be out there and play so hard, because I knew it was going to be a challenge for us."
Anderson, Smart said, "was the best player in the game. I told our guys coming in with the scouting report, he's as good as anyone at his position in the country. So impressed by the progress that he's made [at Virginia] ... He was a high-energy guy early, a defensive guy, just a motor guy. But he didn't have anywhere near the poise and skill he's developed now. He's just a complete player."
Smart, who was worked with Bennett in the USA Basketball program, also singled out Brogdon, who finished with 15 points Saturday. Brogdon had five turnovers, but he delivered in the clutch for the Cavaliers, as he has so often during his college career.
"He's never too high, never too low," Smart said. "He makes a big play, you don't see him going crazy and doing all kinds of stuff with the crowd. When plays don't go his way, don't go his team's way, he just hangs in there, sticks to the process. He's very, very mature."
Bennett used only eight players Saturday. One of them, freshman swingman Marial Shayok, was in for only five minutes, but Nolte and redshirt freshman guard Devon Hall logged 18 and 15 minutes, respectively.
"Devon, Evan, everybody that came off the bench just played very well," Brogdon said. "Devon's a guy that hasn't got a lot of minutes in the past few games, but he came off [the bench] and I thought he played an extremely good game today."
Hall, after breaking VCU's press, passed to Gill for a dunk that gave Virginia a 29-23 lead with 6:03 left in the first half. About 40 seconds later, on another fast break, Brogdon threw a bounce pass to the 6-5 Hall, who soared for a slam that pushed the Cavaliers' lead to eight. The Rams' fans sat stunned, and Smart called a timeout.
"That just made my year," Anderson said. "[Hall has] got so much bounce, and being able to use that in this type of environment, that's huge."
Final exams start next week at the University, and the `Hoos won't play again until Dec. 18, when Cleveland State visits JPJ for a 7 p.m. game. The back-to-back road wins sent the Cavaliers into the break in high spirits.
"That really helps our confidence," Gill said, "just to show we can win in hostile environments like we just did."
Whether VCU and UVa will continue this series is uncertain. Whatever happens, their past two meetings have showcased two high-level teams.
"I remember I said last year in the press conference [at JPJ], Shaka's a friend and I have so much respect for his program," Bennett said. "I can say that in defeat and I can say that in victory ... He's done a great job, and I admire him and what they've done, and it's just two programs trying to get as good as you can."
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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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