Long before Tony Bennett’s current players arrived on Grounds, the standard was set in the University of Virginia men’s basketball program. The Cavaliers rose to national prominence under Bennett on a foundation of relentless defense, tenacious rebounding and overall grit.
Bennett’s latest team, his 12th as UVA’s head coach, is searching for consistency in all of those areas.
“We’ve just got to keep working and keep improving and chipping away,” Bennett said after No. 15 Virginia pulled away from Kent State in overtime for a 71-64 victory Friday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Golden Flashes (1-1), of the Mid-American Conference, torched the Wahoos’ Pack Line defense in the second half, shooting 56 percent from the floor (and 50 percent from 3-point range). Trailing 62-59, Kent State came up with three offensive rebounds on the final possession of regulation, the last of which led to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Danny Pippen.
“When a guy hits a shot like that it’s a little deflating,,” UVA forward Sam Hauser said. “That’s an area where we need to finish the game right there and seal the win. But sometimes stuff like that happens, and we just had to refocus in the huddle, and I think we did that well and came out and played a good five minutes in overtime and obviously came out on top. I was happy with our fight in overtime, but overall we got to get a lot tougher and a lot stronger on the boards.”
In the extra period, Hauser scored on a left-handed drive to make it 64-62, then hit a long trey to make it a five-point game with 42 seconds left. The Flashes’ only points in overtime came on a driving layup with 20 seconds left.
“You could definitely feel the intensity pick up [in OT],” junior point guard Kihei Clark said. “It shouldn’t be that way. Just because it’s in crunch time, it doesn’t mean our effort should pick up. It should be like that throughout the game, but we definitely upped our effort at the defensive end, because we knew defense would carry us to a win, and we were able to get stops. That’s something we had to do to pull out the W tonight.”
Their most experienced players saved the Wahoos (3-1) in this one. Hauser, a 6-8 redshirt senior, finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and a season-high four assists. Another redshirt senior, 7-1 Jay Huff, contributed a career-best 18 points, 11 boards and two blocked shots, and Clark added a season-high 14 points and eight assists.
Clark, who’s come off the bench the past two games after starting 44 in a row, scored six points late in regulation to steady the Hoos, attacking the basket repeatedly. In overtime, he hounded Kent State guard Michael Nuga (20 points).
“He brought what he needed to bring in, and he’s got to bring it nonstop,” Bennett said of the 5-9 Clark. “That was important.”
Bennett saluted the Flashes, too.
“They played very hard,” he said. “They went at us. They were quick and they were strong, and they exploited some things at times. They hit a couple of tough or fortunate shots that were kind of back-breakers and could have been the difference. But we stayed the course and came up with enough tough shots.”
From a team that closed the abbreviated 2019-20 season with eight straight victories, UVA lost its best rebounders and most versatile defenders: 6-9 Mamadi Diakite and 6-8 Braxton Key. Both contributed in ways that didn’t always show up on the stat sheet, Bennett noted, and without them Virginia is still trying to forge an identity.
In tight games, the Hoos have to be able to come “up with key stops and key rebounds, and we’re not there yet in those areas,” Bennett said.
It starts with effort, said Clark, a key member of the UVA team that won the NCAA title in 2018-19.
“It’s early, but we just have to learn how to grind it out,” Clark said. “Like Coach Bennett said after the game, ‘We think we’re playing at our max effort, but there’s a whole another level that we have to get to in order to reach the next level of play.’ ”
After opening the season with a one-sided win over Towson at the Bubbleville event in Uncasville, Connecticut, Virginia faltered there two days later in a 61-60 loss to San Francisco. Back home in Charlottesville, UVA rolled to a big victory at JPJ, beating Saint Francis (Pa.) 76-51 on Tuesday, then found itself in another close game Friday night. This time the Hoos prevailed.
“Hopefully, this game and the previous games will keep building us to what we need,” Bennett said, “because we will need to improve, no question about it, in order to be as good as we can, because we’re not there yet … It’s a work in progress. That’s a cliché, but it’s true.”