Virginia head coach Tony Bennett is tough to impress when it comes to defense. After he watched his second-ranked Cavaliers manhandle the No. 18 Clemson Tigers, 61-36, on Tuesday night, he offered up some effusive praise.
“I thought in the second half that’s some of the best defense we’ve played.” Bennett stated after the game.
That’s saying something when coming from Coach Bennett.
“He [Bennett] was happy with it and proud of us how we responded in the second half,” fifth-year guard Devon Hall said. “I told our guys, I said, ‘I think that was maybe one of the best defensive halves I’ve been a part of.’ That was fun, I’m not going to lie. That was fun.”
The stats would agree. Virginia amassed seven blocks, caused 19 turnovers, and stole the ball 14 times, something that shocked Hall.
“Fourteen steals? That’s a lot, right?”
Yes, that’s a lot. The Cavaliers came into the game averaging 7.3 steals per game, which is the most for a Tony Bennett led UVA team since the 2011-12 team averaged 6.5 for the season. Steals don’t necessarily seem to be a point of emphasis for this team, but more a result of players being in the right place at the right time with active hands.
Ty Jerome was an excellent example of that tonight against Clemson as he had a career-high four steals.
“I wanted to make sure I said this. Ty today, his activity with his hands was amazing,” Hall emphatically stated in the post game. “He really helped us because sometimes they’d get around a ball screen and him being active with his hands really, really helped us.”
That action was part of what made life miserable for Clemson, which only scored 13 points in the second half. That’s not ideal if you’re a Tiger fan. What’s worse, is the scoring drought actually spanned the final 26:23 of game time, including the last six plus minutes of the first half.
Redshirt second year Mamadi Diakite, who saw increased minutes due to a slight back injury to Virginia’s superstar forward Isaiah Wilkins, came through with a big game. Diakite finished with three blocks and two steals, and played terrific team defense. Jack Salt was tremendous down low with one steal and five rebounds, cutting off lanes and hedging (and just two fouls!).
Marcquise Reed, Clemson’s leading scorer with 16 points per game coming into today, finished with just six. Shelton Mitchell who came in averaging over 12 points per game? He had no points and took just three shots. Wherever the Tigers turned, a Wahoo was there.
As Virginia’s lead increased, so did the noise inside John Paul Jones Arena from the 14,000 plus fans.
“They’re extremely well coached in what they do,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said of Virginia’s defense. “When they can lock into you, it’s hard to execute good offense, especially in this building. Because this building, it’s a little bit like playing at Clemson football. We raise hell on third down. Don’t get third down because you’re probably going to have a delay of game penalty. I think that’s about the only thing we didn’t have - a delay of game today.”
Back on January 6th when Virginia defeated North Carolina, 61-49, Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams had nothing but compliments for the Wahoo defense.
“Their defense was really good,” Williams said, continuing, “I told Tony that’s about as good a defensive game I’ve had anybody play against us maybe ever, but definitely in a long time.”
Although that style of play is not getting much love from those outside the program (minus opposing coaches, of course), the players truly embrace it.
“We grind every day and we work on defense. We preach it,” Kyle Guy stated. “It’s hard for anybody to score on us. So when we are hitting on all cylinders, it is actually really fun to play defense like that.”
“It is so exciting because some of the people don’t appreciate it.” Jerome said. “Some of the people don’t talk about it, don’t talk about us at all, and that’s fine. We don’t care. It’s just people call us boring, this and that, but we love it. It’s who we are. We’re going to embrace it, our fans embrace it, and that’s what’s most important.”
Virginia is now holding opponents, on average, to an NCAA-low 51.6 points per game. Tonight, Clemson became the 10th team this season that Virginia held under 50 points, and the second under 40 (with Wisconsin being the other). As individuals, the Hoos are playing well. Together? They’re incredible.
“There’s individual talent, but I love the saying that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Bennett explained. “We have some really great parts, but there is something going on with that synergy.”
Next up, the Hoos will face the stiffest test of the season as KenPom’s No. 1 defense of Virginia faces KenPom’s No. 2 offense of Duke in Durham. Virginia hasn’t won at Cameron Indoor in 23 years, and Duke has a young superstar in big man Marvin Bagley III.
The last time Virginia won at Duke? That would be in the 1994-95 season, one game after the Hoos beat No. 18 Clemson, 61-37, in Charlottesville.
We’ll see if history can repeat itself Saturday at 2pm.