CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia Coach Tony Bennett watched the ball bounce aimlessly off guard Malcolm Brogdon’s leg and decided he’d seen enough. It was the Cavaliers’ fourth careless turnover in five possessions to begin the second half Monday night and they suddenly found themselves in a tie game with Norfolk State.
That, the coach said with a smirk later, riled him up like few things can.
“My Italian side came out,” Bennett said about the ensuing timeout. “I became more like my dad than my mom.”
Virginia got the message loud and clear, putting the clamps down on the defensive end and creating just enough offense to pull away for a 66-56 victory over Norfolk State in front of 9,206 at John Paul Jones Arena.
The defining stretch of the evening came once Bennett lit into his team on the sideline less than three minutes after halftime and inserted forward Anthony Gill and guard Teven Jones into the game. The Cavaliers responded by scoring 20 of the game’s next 25 points, including runs of 9-0 and 8-0 that eventually did in the Spartans.
Sophomore Justin Anderson led the way with 14 points, eight rebounds and three assists, and senior Joe Harris chipped in 12 points and seven rebounds. But once it was over, and Virginia players got set to go their separate ways for Christmas, Bennett wanted to ensure his team didn’t forget about the lackadaisical stretch that brought his temper to the surface.
“To start the way we did in the second half is unacceptable. It looked like, ‘Eh, we’re just messing around,’ ” Bennett said during his postgame news conference.
The game began with Virginia’s sixth starting lineup in 12 games, and for the first time since Jan. 19, 2012, it did not include senior forward Akil Mitchell. But the third team all-ACC selection reacted as Bennett hoped.
Mitchell scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds, and admitted coming off the bench “was kind of humbling.”
Gill finished with seven points, all of which came after halftime. He did not play in the first half as Bennett experimented with shortening his rotation and using four guards on the court at the same time.
The Cavaliers (9-3) very easily could have beaten Norfolk State (8-5) more handily given their defensive intensity following halftime. Virginia entered the contest leading the nation in scoring defense and held the Spartans to just one field goal over a span of nearly nine minutes midway through the second half. Norfolk State shot just 36.4 percent from the floor.
But after beginning the game with five assists on their first seven field goals and jumping out to a quick 14-4 advantage, the Cavaliers ended up with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. Virginia did, however, make 27 of its 39 foul shots, the most free throws attempted in a game during Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville.
As the final buzzer approached, though, it was Brogdon who again drew the ire of Bennett. After the Cavaliers’ only three-pointer of the second half increased the lead back to double digits, the redshirt sophomore essentially handed the ball over to Spartans guard Marese Phelps near midcourt.
Bennett fumed on the sideline, and delivered another ominous warning.
“It doesn’t make sense. I said, ‘There’s got to be some accountability for that,’ ” he said afterward. “That drove me crazy. I’ll be honest with you. . . . Sometimes it just looks like we’re sleepwalking out there and you can’t have that.”
He ended up using 10 players, adding that he notices the negative body language some of his players project on the bench due to the fluctuating playing time this season.
“You’ve got a responsibility to put the team above yourself and it’s okay to be frustrated,” Bennett said of his message to the team. “Tell your girlfriend about it.”