We Have Just Now Begun To Fight
This was no romp of unicorns and fairies dancing under the rainbows while the crowd threw rose petals onto the grass and harps put everyone to sleep. No, this was ugly and bloody and painfully slow.
Yes, like a Zack Snyder movie. But in the end, it would be the Spartans strewn across a field of hacked limbs while the victorious opponent went home to its women and mead.
Tony Bennett might need mead to get through the game film of this one. Though it had its bright spots, there were too many stupid turnovers (looking at you, Ty Jerome and Nigel Johnson), offensive rebounds surrendered - and even TWO alley oop dunks on the kind of play we used to see Darius Thompson perpetrate. Out-rebounded and in one stretch of the second half with more turnovers than field goals, the Hoos flirted with disaster and did nothing to dispel narratives.
But fuck the narratives already. We warned you the Spartans would not easily yield the arena and they did not. Stung by how easily they fled the field last time around, they came into this one determined to make a stand and probably with some confidence that "these guys ain't so tough."
Well, fortunately, one Guy was tough enough in the first half and then after the visiting gladiators had sliced a 19-point deficit to a mere 8 with plenty of time within which to snatch victory, the aforementioned Jerome and Johnson stepped up and rallied the home forces. First Johnson gashed the Spartan line for a raid on the basket to push the lead back to ten, then Jerome with a tactical ruse slipped his pursuers and dropped a bomb from long range to knock the invaders on their heels. When Devon Hall followed up with his own three-pointer, you could have been forgiven if you thought the forces from below had been routed.
But they hadn't. The Cavaliers paused to pose astride their steeds for maidenly adoration, and the bloodied Spartans took advantage of the respite to get back in fighting stance and draw more blood. It was free throw shooting that would preserve the victory, with Jack Salt showing off the results of his hard work with a pair of free throws.
Bennett will not find the game video light entertainment, but I'm sure he will be quite pleased to view it. He will find plenty of things for his team to work on, plenty of reasons for the players to pay attention. The defense was good early and kept the offensively-challenged Hoos from finding themselves in a disadvantageous position. With good defense it only takes one hot player to keep you in the game, and Kyle Guy did that with a scintillating 14-point performance. He drove into the paint, ran the break, sank free throws and hit two big threes. Struggling early, the Hoos put together a strong end of the first half and went into the break with a 9-point lead. Virginia then came out of the half aggressively and throttled UNC-G, holding them to 1 point while building a 19-point lead.
But then the defense went to shit, including the rebounding, and offensive flow gave way to a mess. Suddenly it looked like last year all over again, with the opponent ratcheting up the perimeter pressure, taking Guy completely out of the game, and forcing the Hoos to look elsewhere. They surprised the Cavalier bigs by doubling the post, something we haven't seen much of. The big-to-big doubling stymied Wilkins in particular, who had a big 9-point first half but handled the double teams poorly and did not score in the second.
Wilkins, Hall, Salt and Guy can go home and catch a good night sleep. They were the core of the victory tonight. The two senior stalwarts were second and third in scoring, combining for 22 points. Zay did Zay things, and Hall had a critical moment when he recognized how the referees were calling the game and drew a foul that put Virginia into the bonus. The two free throws were important. Hall was also primarily responsible for Spartan Spaniard Francis Alonso having a performance he would like to forget. Without Alonso, UNC-G was screwed.
Salt was a pillar in the middle, and although he did nothing to dispel the notion he has blocks of granite strapped to his wrists, had the two free throws and the hook shot to encourage further efforts. His hook and Isaiah's first half attacks led to the second-half double-teams, so that is progress.
Guy's second-half disappearance on offense was disappointing after such a strong first half, but he still helped his team with his passing and his defense. Yeah, that's right, his defense. He's a lot longer than he looks and the Spartans kept trying to pass over him and he kept snaking a hand up there and snaring the passes. Plus he broke down and kept his man in front of him for the most part. He'll sleep well tonight playing so many minutes.
De'Andre Hunter is going to want to forget this one. While he did have some great moments defensively, the kid will no doubt catch some ribbing for that three-pointer. Forget it, young man, because you made the play to get yourself a good look and next game you're going to bury it. He was visibly nervous out there. He can draw solace from Jerome's freshman appearance against this same team.
Jay Huff. After one game, this season looks just like last. World of potential, but a lot to learn; his lack of mastery readily apparent from his spot on the bench.
Trade your spot on the bench for a guy with a wrench...
I cannot pass up a Frank Zappa moment when one comes along. Jay had his tonight as he would be no Crew Slut. Young man will have his moments when he gives up his spot on the bench, but tonight was not one.
Mamadi Diakite. He was bullied under the boards and had another one of those "what are you thinking?!" moments with the ball like last year's Miami game when he had a MONSTER FUCKING DUNK to bring down the house and passed. Passed? Tonight he got set up with a feed down low with NOBODY between him and the rim and he played it like George McClellan with the Army of the Potomac, never once turning to face the goal. Bennett went Lincoln on him.
In the end, it's a win against a game opponent. With 11 experienced players returning and bitter memories to drive them, the Spartans were a good first game opponent. At least we weren't West Virginia or Indiana, getting embarrassed. And this same team did beat the Cheaters by 8 points in a 13-minute game just a week ago. They were no pushover. Still, this did not look like an ACC contender tonight. That, very likely, will change. First game struggles generally lead to greater futures.
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