CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia Coach Tony Bennett was driving to John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday when his 11-year-old son brought to light the biggest challenge facing his Cavaliers.
At some point during the ride, Bennett mentioned just three games remained in the regular season. But only one mattered to Eli Bennett. In response, he started chanting “Cuse, Cuse” to the chagrin of his father.
“I said, ‘You don’t get it man,’ ” Tony Bennett said with a smile after No. 12 Virginia emerged with a 65-40 victory over Miami. “I was a little mad at first. . . . That’s what everybody likes to point to.”
He could joke about the conversation after the Cavaliers proved they had not overlooked the Hurricanes to set the stage for one of the most highly anticipated home games in program history.
Virginia (24-5, 15-1) has won 12 straight conference games for the first time in school history, continuing its best start in league play, and this one gave Bennett 100 career victories since arriving in Charlottesville before the 2009-10 season. Another triumph on Saturday, when No. 4 Syracuse comes to town for a sold-out showdown, would give Virginia its first outright ACC regular season title since 1981.
That might not have been the case without the exploits of freshman point guard London Perrantes , who proved to be the catalyst during a 16-4 run in the second half that allowed Virginia to pull away late Wednesday.
Perrantes, who entered averaging just 4.4 points per game, finished with 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting, including four three-pointers that “ignited the offense,” said sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, who also scored 15 points.
During a first half in which neither team shot better than 33.3 percent from the field, Perrantes buoyed the Cavaliers with nine early points against Miami’s 3-2 matchup zone. After he connected on his final shot — a second three-pointer during Virginia’s definitive surge — the rest of his teammates were shooting just a combined 29.6 percent.
Perrantes also dished out four assists and grabbed three rebounds but admitted the pregame talk about Syracuse wasn’t easy to ignore.
“It definitely was hard because of other people outside our team that are so hyped about the game and didn’t know too much about Miami,” Perrantes said. “With all the outside sources that are trying to blow our heads up, I felt like the coaches did a good job of keeping our heads intact and focusing on Miami. Now, we can focus on Syracuse.”
Senior Joe Harris added 11 points, but it was a relentless defensive effort that paved the way for Virginia’s 11th double-digit rout since ACC action began.
Miami’s 40 points were the fewest scored in an ACC game this season, and the Hurricanes shot just 26.1 percent from the field, the lowest by a Virginia opponent this year. They were 0 for 12 from three-point range
“It’s not as much we shot badly. They make you take contested shots,” Miami Coach Jim Larranaga said about the Cavaliers, owners of the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense.
Larranaga, though, admitted the Hurricanes (14-14, 5-10) were caught off guard by Perrantes. He had scored in double figures just twice before Wednesday, heralded instead for his stellar assist-to-turnover in conference play.
But the 6-foot-2 Los Angeles native received a surprise of his own before the game when his mother flew in to watch him play in-person for the first time in more than a month. Virginia can only hope that positive mojo carries over to a Saturday afternoon its fan base has been dreaming about for weeks.
“I feel like we’re as good as anybody when he’s playing at a high level,” forward Akil Mitchell said.