Hard-nosed defense. Efficient, deliberate offensive sets. Timely outside shooting. Mental and physical toughness. These are factors that would benefit any basketball team, but Tony Bennett's squads especially value them. In unimpressive wins against Seattle and Towson, the Cavaliers appeared to stray from the fundamentals needed for success. However, in an important road game against LSU, #21 Virginia put everything back together to defeat the Tigers 57-52.
The game against 10-4 LSU was a poor matchup on paper for UVA, who improved to 13-1 for the first time since the 1981-82 season. The Tigers are by no means an elite team, but they were coming off a 7-game winning streak, are tall and athletic, and play the toughest defense of any team we see outside the ACC. The game was expected to be a competitive one, and it didn't disappoint, as the lead see-sawed back and forth, never extending beyond 7 points. In the end, Virginia made shots when it counted. Clinging to a 51-50 lead with under 2 minutes to play, Joe Harris nailed a clutch three-pointer, which proved to be enough, as the defense held down the stretch to preserve the win.
Harris, who finished with 14 points, wasn't the only Hoo sinking outside shots; Sammy Zeglinski continued his red-hot streak, leading the team with 17 points while shooting 4-7 from beyond the arc. Mike Scott joined the two in double figures with 12 and added a game-high 9 rebounds, while successfully avoiding any hint of foul trouble. The team displayed a level of comfort and smooth ball movement that had been lacking in past games to set up these open jumpers.
Defensively, the pack-line defense unsettled LSU's guards, who frequently settled for long or contested jumpers. The main force for the Tiger offense was 6-11 transfer Justin Hamilton; he went through stretches when he scored at will, shooting over or dribbling right past our big men. Late in the game, the Hoos locked down inside, doubling the post with great success. After struggling early, Assane Sene seemed to be able to cover everybody at once, helping to both keep Hamilton from getting open looks and deny him the ball in the first place.
Though Hamilton finished with 21 points, he was limited to one basket in the final 12 minutes of the game, while turning the ball over three times. None of these was more important than Assane Sene's steal after Hamilton pulled down a rebound with 20 seconds to go and the Hoos leading by 2. Though not known for his hands, Sene somehow managed to poke the ball loose, allowing UVA to shoot free throws to ice the game,
A strong rebounding performance was another factor in the win. Coming into the game, LSU was rebounding 36.4% of their missed shots on offense. Against Virginia, they grabbed just 21% (6-29) of offensive rebounds, a lower rate than the usually offensive rebounding-averse Cavaliers (who rebounded 9 of 29), despite numerous long rebound opportunities off missed jumpers.
Overall, this was a performance to be proud of on both sides of the ball. After last week's stinker against Towson, Tony Bennett emphasized the small margin for error in any game against any team. But if the Hoos follow the formula they stuck to against LSU when they face ACC competition, they will have plenty of success.
Virginia has completed their out of conference schedule, a successful one by any account; the lone blip for the 13-1 squad is a 2 point loss in a small gym in the Virgin Islands to a tricky TCU team. Coming into the season, fans feared that a weak schedule would doom potential NCAA hopes. However, with an impressive record and notable wins vs. Michigan, vs. GMU, at Oregon, and at LSU, the OOC slate appears to be an asset on the team's resume.
After the game, Bennett applauded the team's play: "[...]There is a level of patience and poise that is required. [...] We knew that we were going to have to work for it. We knew it was going to be a grinder and we embraced that and fought it out to the last possession."
The fight that we saw from the team against the Tigers is one that will have to be maintained as UVA begins the 16-game grinder of ACC play. That starts Saturday at 6 PM against Miami, this time back at John Paul Jones Arena. The game is a great chance to avenge two collapses against the Hurricanes last year and solidify a top-20 ranking...but beyond those sentimental aspects, it is simply another opportunity to play good basketball and keep the momentum of the current 11 (!!) game winning-streak alive.