CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- It wasn't pretty.
You know what? That's a brazen understatement. It was awful. It was a flailingly, horrifically, shield-your-eyes, oh-the-humanity rock fight of ugly. It was the kind of game for which college basketball generally, and Tony Bennett's Virginia specifically, has often been chastised for allowing to happen. It was the kind of display that prompts an organizing body to change its rules.
It was also, in the end, a win -- a 63-62 Virginia Cavaliers victory over a surprisingly tough and totally locked-in California Golden Bears team. The win wasn't secured until the final 10 seconds of overtime, just six minutes of in-game time after the Cavaliers took their first lead of the game, when guard London Perrantes buried the biggest shot of Virginia's season to date.
It was a narrow, grisly escape. It was "127 Hours," but with basketball. And still, it was a win, and Virginia will take it.
Virginia's offense isn't usually this ugly
In any other season, you could casually write Tuesday night off: This is just how Virginia plays, right? But it's not how the 2015-16 Cavaliers have played. On Saturday, the No. 12-ranked Villanova Wildcats arrived in Charlottesville with a reputation for elite defense; the Wildcats had allowed only two teams to score more than a point per trip in 2015-16, and neither St. Joseph's (72 points in 66 possessions) nor Oklahoma (78 in 71) had set Nova's D ablaze. (The latter loss had much more to do with Villanova's 28 missed 3-point attempts.) And Virginia just destroyed them.
Against the Wildcats, the Cavaliers made 18 of their 34 2-point shots, eight of their 12 3s, 26 of their 30 free throws. They scored 1.43 points per possession. They so thoroughly blitzed Villanova's defense, particularly in a breakout second half, that the Wildcats' own (totally impressive!) 1.25-points-per-trip felt totally feeble by comparison.
That performance vaulted the traditionally defense-obsessed Hoos to the ranks of the nation's best offensive teams ... just in time for the wheels to come off Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers opened their home game against California with six straight empty possessions. They scored four points in their first 12 trips down the floor. A hard-working but creatively limited freshman averaging 2.0 points per game (Jarred Reuter) scored seven of their first 14 points, which took them 12 minutes and 32 seconds to accrue. They were sloppy in possession. They settled for unusually bad shots. By halftime, Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Isaiah Wilkins and Darius Thompson had yet to notch a single field goal. No other Cavalier had more than one, and the nation's most efficient offense had scored .69 points per possession in 20 minutes on its home floor.
The second half was only slightly better. The big run never came. Instead, it was a slow trickle of a comeback -- a Brogdon 3 here, a Perrantes drive there, one of which culminated in a Thompson fast-break dunk for UVa's first lead with just under a minute remaining.
Somehow, a team that entered Tuesday night with the nation's deepest, most statistically impressive offensive resume -- one that blew past all of the old stereotypes about its obsession with defense -- needed a last-second overtime 3 from its resident big-shot-maker Perrantes to survive unranked Cal. Bizarre.
Why was California a top-15 team in the preseason? This is why
Despite an 18-15 finish in 2014-15 and Arizona's hegemonic rule over the league, California was a trendy Pac-12 title favorite in October. The addition of two highly touted future NBA draftees (Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb) to a lineup with at least three talented perimeter players (Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird) was enough to push the Bears, almost overnight, into the preseason top 15. The excitement was understandable. It was also slightly optimistic. By November's end -- after Cal suffered two straight losses to San Diego State and Richmond involving unimpressive metrics on both ends of the floor -- the bubble had been punctured. Cal fell out of the AP poll entirely, banished to the cold perceptual wildnerness.
Whatever they were doing there -- chopping stumps in the snow like Rocky, perhaps? -- it worked. And it worked just a few days after coach Cuonzo Martin told reporters he was still looking for Cal to emerge Tuesday night with an impressive sense of collective purpose and defensive execution.
Everything but the final score went well. After a mostly inefficient season marked by bad shot selection and missed free throws, Brown was an absolute beast, isolating in space, thrusting toward the rim to finish with 18 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the floor and 8-of-9 from the free throw line. Rabb had 12 rebounds. Mathews and Wallace were solid. UVa's suddenly ugly offensive night wasn't totally random: The Bears, Rabb especially, executed perfectly on defense, cutting off Gill at seemingly every pick-and-roll pass, playing Brogdon brilliantly one-on-one, using their strength and length to make a tidy Cavaliers team look sloppy and confused.
Martin didn't leave Charlottesville with a win. He will be heartbroken. But he can wake up Wednesday with a new view of his own team -- a team that might well be every bit as good as everybody thought in October. A team still getting better, too.
Virginia's defensive flaws were exposed
While the Cavaliers were one of the nation's best offensive teams prior to Tuesday night, they were merely "very good," not great, on the defensive end. After being among the nation's best 2-point defenses a year ago, these Cavs were surprisingly open in the middle, which, combined with the usual 3s the pack-line gives up, had made them less daunting overall. And while Cal didn't exactly light it up Tuesday, the Bears did wrestle their way into the heart of an usually unbreakable defensive core.
As UVa teams go, this is a drastic script-flip. In games where the offense goes cold, it leaves the Cavaliers suddenly vulnerable.
Thanks to Perrantes, they escaped Tuesday night's festival of ugly intact. Barely. The next time might not end so well.