Defensive-minded Virginia keeps rolling

RICHMOND, Va. -- For the first time in more than a decade, the Virginia Cavaliers are 9-0.

“To be honest, I completely forgot we were undefeated coming into this game, until I got in here,” sophomore starter London Perrantes said . “And then I was like, ‘OK, it’s starting to settle in. We’ve got a target on our back.’”

That target will hold after Saturday’s 74-57 victory over VCU, which ended the Rams' streak of 22 straight home wins. The seventh-ranked Cavaliers beat a pair of regional rivals on the road this week, demonstrating again in this young season that they’re a sound, all-around squad capable of winning in any environment. UVa claimed the victory over the VCU Rams in front of a sold-out Seigel Center crowd, winning a contest that wasn’t as lopsided as the final score.

Virginia played with poise, depth and consistency, avenging last year’s three-point home loss to the Rams and showing why they might be one of the more complete teams to beat in March. The Cavaliers shot a season-high 68.3 percent, including 12-of-16 from behind the arc, while playing their hallmark brand of pack-line defense, limiting VCU to 38.3-percent shooting.

Playing without senior Darion Atkins, who suffered a back injury during the Maryland game, the Cavaliers were led by another player injured in the Maryland matchup. Despite an ankle sprain, Justin Anderson finished with a season-high 21 points, including three treys, while Anthony Gill contributed 18 points and Malcolm Brogdon totaled 15.

“This is a crazy environment, but we kept them quiet a lot of the time,” Malcolm Brogdon said. “VCU played a very good game, but we were able to handle their pressure.”

Initially, UVa’s offense worked to find its rhythm against Shaka Smart’s pressuring havoc defense, commiting two quick turnovers as the teams tied at several points, including a 16-16 score at the 11:48 mark. But then the Cavaliers capitalized on their height advantage, working the ball inside or finding the open man behind the arc. Gill drove the lane on repeated plays, forcing the Rams to call a timeout with 5:24 remaining in the first half with the Cavaliers leading 31-23.

Last year, the game between these rivals remained tight, with nine ties and six lead changes. before Rams’ then-junior Treveon Graham stunned the Charlottesville crowd with a last-second 3-pointer to seal the 59-56 VCU win.

This year, while Graham nailed consecutive threes from the corner in a key second-half drive that brought the Rams within four points, the Cavaliers still controlled the tempo and offense for much of the game.

Defensively, for the 15th straight contest dating to last season, Virginia held its opponent under 70 points, leading the nation in that category. The Cavaliers' defense often forced VCU into last-second shot clock situations, hurried baskets that, when they missed, the Cavaliers usually rebounded.

Seven Cavalier players saw at least 15 minutes, and freshman Marial Shayok contributed five key minutes off the bench. Upperclassmen experience was central to Virginia’s play, as has been the case throughout the season, including players such as Evan Nolte and Devon Hall coming in off the bench.

“If you look, they didn’t play their bench nearly as much as they normally do,” VCU's Smart said. “Their main older guys won the game for them. Nolte is a really good changeup because when he comes in, in their motion offense he’s screening, but at the same time you always have to be aware of him as a shooter.”

Nolte’s contributions as well as Virginia’s overall shooting proved too much for the Rams.

“That’s what’s so good about our team – we have a lot of depth,” Gill said. “If anyone’s not doing what they need to do, there’s someone off the bench who can come in and pick us up. Coach Bennett preaches that to us every day – be ready, always be ready.”