CHARLOTTESVILLE — John Paul Jones Arena had seen London Perrantes take control of a basketball game with Virginia in dire straits before. But that didn’t stop the sellout crowd from rising to their feet and going mad all the same Wednesday night when Perrantes grabbed the reins of the flagging Cavaliers and willed them to a 63-61 win over Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The guard closed his second-half showcase with a half-court pass to Isaiah Wilkins, who drove to the basket and threw down an exclamation point of a dunk to put Virginia up 63-59 with 17 seconds remaining. The Cavaliers’ defense, porous for half the night, held strong the rest of the way.
It was the type of nerve-wracking game Virginia fans aren’t used to so early in the season. The Cavaliers trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half before Perrantes orchestrated a turnaround.
“They beat us every way, shape or form in the first half,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “They beat us down the floor, they were the aggressor on the half, they were just tough minded . . . we couldn’t stop them, anyway. Then the second half, we played.”
When sixth-ranked Virginia (7-0) trailed by 12 at intermission, Bennett’s strategy was to go after his senior point guard, who was 1 of 5 from the floor and had three turnovers to that point.
Perrantes was the sole recipient of one of the more intense halftime speeches Cavaliers’ players had ever seen from Bennett.
“That’s the most I’ve got ripped by him since I’ve been here,” a grinning Perrantes said after. “Yeah, he got into me, and mostly me only. I liked it, I needed it, it sparked not only me but the whole team, so I guess that’s what I needed. It helped, for sure.”
The tight game shone a light on Bennett and his senior guard’s unique relationship. During one second-half time out, Bennett mistakenly drew up a play that involved Malcolm Brogdon, last year’s leading scorer.
Bennett joked that it was “wishful thinking.”
“I was looking at myself like, mm, no, I’m not Malcolm,” Perrantes said. “We were down and I just kind of laughed with him for a little bit. As much as he is so fiery, he can be light at times, which is cool.”
So Bennett and Perrantes sparked the Cavaliers back to life in the second half. The guard set the tone on both ends after intermission and his three-pointer with just under four minutes remaining culminated the comeback by knotting the game at 55.
From then on, the Cavaliers’ suffocating defense dictated the pace and the Buckeyes (6-1) finally ran out of answers.
Perrantes scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half and made all three of his shots from beyond the arc. Guard Devon Hall was the only other Cavaliers player in double figures with 12 points.
The Buckeyes had surged early as Virginia struggled without a strong inside presence. The Cavaliers had just four points in the paint at halftime and could not defend Ohio State in the post. The Buckeyes 6-foot-4 forward Jae’Sean Tate scored 12 points in the first half before the Cavaliers held him to only two in the second.
Virginia, meantime, shot just 26 percent from the floor for the majority of the first 20 minutes before aggressiveness replaced passivity and an 11-0 run trimmed Ohio State’s lead to just one over the first four minutes.
The Cavaliers flirted with the lead after that, owning it briefly after a Perrantes fadeaway jumper before Ohio State used a pair of three-pointers from C.J. Jackson and Marc Loving to regain momentum.
The Buckeyes would grow their lead back to eight before the Cavaliers reeled them in with one final rally.
Marial Shayok (eight points) converted a layup with just over two minutes remaining to give Virginia a 59-57 lead. Loving would trim the margin to two, but Perrantes would own the final moments.
“It was a tale of two halves for him, without a doubt,” Bennett said of his point guard. “But I got after him, I did, and he responded the right way defensively and worked — and we don’t have another way to do it. I wish we did. Some teams, they don’t have to be on all the time. What we did in the second half was mandatory.”