There surely must have been some second thoughts, about nine minutes into Virginia's season-opening basketball game against Houston yesterday at Capital Centre. The Cavaliers' new running game was fizzling, and Virginia was trailing the guys from Phi Slamma Jamma by 12 points.
But Virginia Coach Terry Holland said he never considered abandoning this crowd-pleasing, player-pleasing style. Instead, he made a few strategic adjustments, the most obvious of which was switching from man-to-man defense to zone, and Virginia outran one of college basketball's most famous running teams, 92-77, before an estimated crowd of 6,000.
It was the Cavaliers' largest point total in their last 68 games, dating to Ralph Sampson's senior season. Olden Polynice, Virginia's 6-foot-11 junior center, led the Cavaliers with 25 points, tying his career high, and 15 rebounds, a career high. Point guard Tom Calloway had 18 points, and forward Tom Sheehey 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Forwards Greg Anderson (26) and Rickie Winslow (21) and guard Alvin Franklin (20) scored all but 10 of Houston's points, and Franklin missed 18 of 26 shots, including 12 of 15 in the second half.
"That was no experiment," forward/guard Mel Kennedy said of Virginia's running game.
"I shouldn't say we're a UNLV, but we try to take advantage. Last year we played not to lose. This year we're making the opposition adjust to us," said Drew Kennedy, a junior-college transfer and Virginia's key reserve.
Holland's reasoning is simple: Virginia has a lot of good players whose ability is in the same range, and no seniors.
Thus, Holland feels, it's to the Cavaliers' advantage to use as many as 12 players a game.
He said his team could be as good as any in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference by the end of the season by using a fast-paced game.
"To me, the way I feel immediately after the game is that we had a good win over a good club, but we can play a hell of a lot better," Holland said. "Therefore, if we can play better, we can be really good."
Guy V. Lewis, the losing coach, who watched four of his starters foul out and inexperience prove costly, said he had heard that Virginia was trying to run more this year. "I was hoping that they would," he said.
Except that the fast pace benefited Virginia, and Houston had more breakdowns when it substituted. In the 14-2 run near the end of the first half that gave Virginia a 40-39 lead at intermission and the 11-4 spurt to open the second half, Houston was using new players who played out of control at this pace.
"We've got to play those guys," Lewis said. "I've only got five lettermen, and I can't play them all the time, so I made up my mind before I came up here I was going to get them in there."
Once Virginia got ahead, it stayed there, helped by 20 of 22 free-throw accuracy in the second half, including 16 straight in the final four minutes.
In the first half, Polynice was all of Virginia's offense, scoring 19 points. The Cavaliers had trouble running early, and they never showed an effective half-court offense. A number of Virginia players downplayed the switch in defenses, saying they were pressing at the beginning.
"We were a little overanxious to do well," Drew Kennedy said, "and in our anxiety, we didn't do the things we have to."
When Drew Kennedy came in, Mel Kennedy switched to off guard, and this lineup was the Cavaliers' most effective. "Drew Kennedy's defense was a critical factor in us getting back in the game," Holland said. "We played defense well enough to be in good position to run."
It was still 36-26, Houston, with four minutes left in the half when Lewis put in freshman guards Steve Smith and Gerry McGee. By the time Lewis could call a timeout and get his regulars back in, Smith had taken an ill-advised shot, McGee had missed a free throw and lost the ball, and Virginia, scoring on five straight possessions and three fast breaks, had closed to 36-35.
Virginia took the lead for good, 40-38, when Polynice tipped in a missed free throw.
Houston's foul problems began on the second possession of the second half when center Stacey Belcher got his fourth. That put freshman Ramon Rivera into the game. In the next three possessions, he missed two shots, one an air ball, and Virginia led, 47-39.
Houston came within two points midway through the half, 59-57. But Polynice made the first of two free throws, Mel Kennedy tapped in the missed second free throw, and Calloway stole a blind outlet pass by Anderson and turned it into a three-point play for a 65-57 lead.
And when Virginia kept making its free throws, there was no way for Houston to catch up.
The 15-point margin and fast pace were not lost on Polynice. "I don't like being in one-point games," he said. "That's too scary."