CHARLOTTESVILLE — The second half began the way most things do when Virginia Coach Tony Bennett is involved in a college basketball game — deliberately and without much fanfare. But as the 14th-ranked Cavaliers’ slow march morphed into an avalanche Saturday afternoon, a familiar recipe emerged.
There was the go-ahead three-pointer by senior Joe Harris; the highlight-reel hustle play from sophomore Justin Anderson; and a thunderous dunk that sent John Paul Jones Arena into delirium. And before Notre Dame knew what happened, Virginia had scored the game’s next 25 points and transformed a tie game into another ACC rout.
It didn’t take long for the Cavaliers to rewrite the school history books in style, running away from Notre Dame, 70-49, for their 11th win in a row. Virginia (23-5, 14-1) is off to its best start ever in conference play, surpassing the 1980-81 team that finished 13-1 during a 14-game league slate.
“They’ve had games like this where they look like they’re on the ropes and they have an explosion,” Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said after the carnage was complete. “And today was a nuclear explosion.”
Virginia, which remained ahead of No. 1 Syracuse for first place in the ACC, was devastatingly efficient on the offensive end, connecting on 16 of 21 field goal attempts after halftime and shooting a season-high 63.6 percent for the game.
Senior Akil Mitchell led the way with 15 points on 7-for-7 shooting and forward Anthony Gill chipped in 15 points off the bench as the Cavaliers’ front court feasted on the Fighting Irish (14-14, 5-10). Guard Malcolm Brogdon added 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
But the ruthless 25-0 run, Virginia’s largest surge of the season, won’t soon be forgotten by the sellout crowd of 14,114 that roared its approval.
“I don’t even remember it, honestly,” Mitchell said.
It began methodically with Mitchell and Gill inside once the Cavaliers fumbled away an early double-digit lead. Harris then awoke momentarily from a cold shooting day (3 for 10 from the field) to hit a three-pointer that gave the Cavaliers the lead for good, a feat he also accomplished in Virginia’s closer-than-expected win at Virginia Tech on Tuesday night.
But for the second home game in a row, a come-from-behind block by Anderson changed the entire complexion of the afternoon and prompted Bennett to gush, “He’s such an X-factor guy that way.”
Just when it seemed Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste had beaten Gill for an easy dunk, Anderson jumped from out of nowhere to swat the attempt at the rim. Gill collected the loose ball and fed Brogdon, who passed it back to Gill for a slam that made the score 50-43 with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Anderson was the catalyst during a similar sequence in Virginia’s 61-53 win over Maryland on Feb. 10, when the Cavaliers turned one of his acrobatic blocks into a Harris three-pointer to break open a back-and-forth game.
On Saturday, it wasn’t long before “you feel like everything is going right and you’re playing with supreme confidence,” Brogdon said.
Virginia eventually scored on 15 consecutive possessions and led by 25 en route to a program-record 16th straight home conference win, the longest active streak in the ACC.
As is usually the case, Bennett’s praise focused on the other end of the floor. Notre Dame, led by junior Pat Connaughton’s 11 points, missed 10 shots in a row and even struggled to hit free throws as the Cavaliers pounced. But with his program now atop the ACC standings, and rolling like few basketball teams on this campus have before, Bennett also had to keep the record books in perspective.
“I’m so thankful to be in this spot because it has been a while,” he said. “When that brass ring is coming around, you grab it. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”