CHARLOTTESVILLE, FEB. 1 -- It seems a long time ago that the Virginia Cavaliers were losing to teams they expected to rout on a yearly basis. Now they win when they should, and sometimes convincingly, as with tonight's 77-52 victory over Jacksonville before 6,822 in University Hall.

Granted, the Dolphins (5-14) aren't in the same class as Rhode Island, Old Dominion or Virginia Commonwealth, all of whom beat Virginia early this season. But one also senses the Cavaliers (12-9) have come a long way in the past month.

"This is the kind of team we would have let stay in the game earlier in the year," center Bill Batts said. "We didn't have Mel {Kennedy}; Kenny {Turner} hadn't come around yet . . . But now I have a strong feeling we've put everything together. The kind of defense we're playing, I think we can play with anybody in the country."

That's not to say that the Cavaliers were anything special tonight. They shot 44 percent from the field, were often outrebounded by the smaller Dolphins and were sluggish on defense. Mostly, Virginia waited for Jacksonville (24 turnovers, 39 percent field goal shooting) to self-destruct.

But when the opportunity presented itself, the Cavaliers put the game away. Kennedy gave Virginia its first lead at 31-29 with a 10-foot turnaround jumper 5:30 before halftime, and the Cavaliers never let up from there.

A 12-4 spurt provided a 35-31 lead at the intermission, then the Cavaliers outscored the Dolphins by 23-6 in the first eight minutes of the second half. Kennedy, who finished with 19 points in 20 minutes on eight-for-10 field goal shooting, provided 11 of those early second-half points with a three-pointer and some bruising inside moves.

"We started to blow them out when we forgot about our finesse game and just started to pound it out inside," Kennedy said. Freshman forward Turner provided plenty of help inside, with 12 points on five-of-eight shooting.

But more than anything, it was a night for the Virginia reserves. Coach Terry Holland pulled four of his starters 4:34 into the game with the sluggish Cavaliers down, 13-6, and played out the half with no more than two starters on the floor at a time. "We were concerned with the start," Holland said. "I made the change early and I was not pleased with our toughness early in the game. I thought we were trying to play a finesse game and float around the perimeter while they were driving it in the lane."

The seldom-used Cavaliers provided most of the second-half highlights as well. Holland let the fun begin midway through the second half, and the Cavaliers not only widened the lead, but showed some flair in doing it.

Freshman Dirk Katstra, with one point in 11 minutes for the season coming in, was easily the star with four points, including a two-hand slam on a 50-foot alley-oop from his roommate, John Crotty. "That's nothing. We work on that on the Nerf hoop all the time," Crotty said.

Most important, the Cavaliers regulars got a break before Wednesday's tough road test at North Carolina State. "This came at a really good time," guard John Johnson said. "I know I was tired, and I think everyone else was, too."