Finding a Way
That was the kind of game Virginia might have lost last season. The jump shots weren't falling for anybody. It was a 9:00 game on a school night and the legs were tired from a string of games in short order. Kyle Guy maybe doesn't skillfully exploit ball screens and switches to drive all the way to the backboard for layups. Devon Hall maybe doesn't assert himself. The game stays close and a star like Ethan Happ keeps his team tight until Brad Davison or Kobe King rises to the moment and nails three straight baskets to put the Hoos in a hole they can't climb out of.
But Virginia found a way. Guy saw his shot was off so he used that off-season work and slashed to the basket. Hall took up the banner and led his team forcefully with consecutive baskets time and time again. De'Andre Hunter kept playing defense. Ty Jerome found teammates or pump-faked the three and drove into the gap created. Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite kept tapping balls back so their teammates could try again. Everybody stayed aggressive and confident, and through it all the defense continued to swarm, showing up in numbers wherever the enemy might think he found an opening. In the end those Badgers felt like the redcoats trudging back to Boston from Concord, harassed and bedeviled from every stone wall or hedgerow just wanting the march to end and wondering why they had to come to this godforsaken place.
Virginia found a way because Greg Gard tried to guard Guy with a freshman, and Happ wasn't able to own Salt. Davison is a tough kid and a player, but he's not long and he's inexperienced, and Guy made it show time and time again, bouncing him off screens and goading him into getting wrong-footed, then blowing by and gashing the defense. On the other end, Wisconsin needed Happ to force the Virginia defense to distort, to trap him because they had no choice, letting everyone else play off Happ. But Salt held his own and Virginia was able to trap on its own terms, when it saw an opportunity. Twice Happ turned the ball over against the trap. He showed that he is an excellent player, but he found out what many big men before him have discovered: that Virginia defense is like boxing in a tar pit.
Guy and Hall powered the Hoos to an early 9-2 lead and Virginia never looked back. Jerome and Salt fired the defense. Ty had no legs under his shot and struggled with decisions on offense, but he was locked in defensively from the start, with a "that fucking ball is MINE" attitude that ignited the building. Five defensive rebounds and consistently strong perimeter defense compensated for a poor night on offense.
Virginia's shooting struggles were obvious from the arc, but what demonstrates how thorough they were more than the 3/14 from three was the anomalous 6 second chance points on 14 offensive rebounds. Actually, the 14 offensive rebounds was the anomalous number. In the Hoos' five previous games, they scored 6 second chance points on 5 offensive boards, 7 on 7, 8 on 6, 5 on 5 and 7 on 8. The official box score for the season opener does not give a number for second chance points. So a team that is averaging a hair over 1 second chance point per offensive rebound with remarkable consistency could't even convert 1/2 in this game. It was the worst of three poor 3-point shooting nights, and the only poor night converting on offensive boards.
What the poor shooting masked was a pretty good offensive performance in terms of generating quality looks. Hall, Guy and Jerome all got into the lane after ball screens. At least twice, an isolation was run for Diakite to attack from the short corner area, with Wilkins evacuating the lane. It resulted in a Hunter putback in the first half and a Diakite basket in the second:
We also saw Hunter posting up while Zay cleared out to the weakside above the foul line and Diakite had the ball on the wing. Hunter was fouled. Later, in the second half, Hunter came in at the four and the Hoos ran their 4-man motion.
Defensively, aside from a couple of blown pick-and-rolls early in the second half, the team defense was first class. Those sitting near the floor must have been privy to a constant conversation, because it takes communication for that level of help, rotation, switching, and recovering to make sure all gaps are closed, and all men are covered. Virginia gave Wisconsin maybe five good looks all game. If the Badgers had hit all of them, this one might have had more drama. Instead, Wisconsin could only make 31% of its shots, the fourth game this season a team was held below 35% from the floor.
Next up is Lehigh, then West Virginia on Tuesday. We will have a little extra for you for the West Virginia lead-in, including some video breakdown of the Mountaineers.
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