Virginia takes down Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Panthers came to town averaging 73.1 points per game. Against a Virginia team that prides itself on rugged defense, Pitt nearly reached its average Saturday, a turn of events that, not surprisingly, did not delight Tony Bennett.

“We didn’t play very well defensively, if I want to be real,” said Bennett, who’s in his 12th season as UVA’s head coach.

Even so, the ACC’s first-place team found a way to win. Four players scored in double figures for the Cavaliers, who defeated the Panthers 73-66 at John Paul Jones Arena. Virginia shot 50 percent from 3-point range and 53.2 percent overall.

“Our offense carried us, but that’s disappointing,” Bennett said. “There’s that saying: Don’t accept in victory what you wouldn’t in defeat. You’re grateful for the victory, but you go to work on those areas.”

The Wahoos (13-2, 9-1) blew open a tie game with a 16-0 run early in the second half, but Pitt battled back and cut its deficit to seven late in the game.

“Sometimes I think you get comfortable,” UVA forward Sam Hauser said, “and we got comfortable with that lead.”

Bennett wasn’t pleased with the Wahoos’ effort on the backboards––Pitt turned its 14 offensive rebounds into 12 second-chance points—or its interior defense. But he applauded the perimeter shooting of fifth-year seniors Hauser and Jay Huff, who between them were 6 for 8 from 3-point range; the passing of junior point guard Kihei Clark, who had a game-high eight assists; and the spark provided by senior swingman Tomas Woldetensae, who was 4 for 5 from long range.

“We needed his offense,” Bennett said.

This has been a challenging season for Woldetensae, who transferred to UVA from an Iowa junior college in the summer of 2019. A season ago, he made 22 starts and averaged 27.1 minutes per game. This season he’s started only four games and is averaging 13.2 minutes per game.

“It’s hard to stay confident and be ready to go once your name is called,” Woldetensae said Saturday. “But I’m always happy for the guys that produce and win games, because at the end of the day, it’s about the team and winning.”

He did his part against Pitt (9-6, 5-5), which was coming off an emphatic win over No. 16 Virginia Tech. Woldetensae, who’d been scoreless in his previous four games, checked in with 3:57 left in the first half. He proceeded to knock down back-to-back 3-pointers, and the Hoos rallied to take a 30-27 lead into the break.

Woldetensae hit two more treys in the second half and finished with 14 points, matching his season high.

“We needed another shooter, and Tomas was hitting them today,” Bennett said.

Woldetensae wasn’t the only UVA player who heated up Saturday. The 6-8 Hauser, a transfer from Marquette who sat out last season, made 8 of 9 shots from the floor and all four of his free throws. His 23 points were his high as a Cavalier.

“Sam is so steady,” Bennett said. “He’s poised … He knows how to play the game.”

The 7-1 Huff was 5 for 6 from the floor and led the Hoos in rebounds (eight) and blocked shots (two). For the season, he’s shooting 47.9 percent from beyond the arc.

“Jay’s been playing well,” Bennett said. “This was not one of his better interior defensive games, but he gave us a lift offensively and did some things.”

Virginia came into the game concerned, and understandably so, about Pitt’s No. 11: Justin Champagnie, a 6-6 sophomore who leads the ACC in scoring and rebounding. Champagnie finished with a double-double at JPJ––18 points and 10 rebounds––but Hauser made him earn those points.

“Sam was the difference in this game with his offense and his defense,” Bennett said.

Not known for his defense when he arrived in Charlottesville in 2019, Hauser struggled at that end of the floor early this season. But on Saturday he showed how far he’s come as a defender.

“I thought he was really good at being, as we call it, a ‘wall on wheels,’ ” Bennett said. “That part I was really pleased with.”

Hauser said: “I’ve worked hard at it. Obviously, there’s still some improvement to be had, but I think I played pretty solid at that end and made [Champagnie] work for his shots. He’s a great player. Hats off to him. He still had a really good game. I just tried to make it as difficult as I could.”

In Pitt’s win over Virginia Tech on Wednesday night, junior guard Xavier Johnson scored a career-high 32 points. Against UVA, Johnson missed 9 of 12 shots from the floor and finished with 10 points.

“I thought Kihei challenged him in the second half, and that also was a highlight,” Bennett said. “[Johnson] is one of the quickest guys in this league, and explosive.”