The Virginia men’s basketball team is not an offensive juggernaut.
At least that’s what Coach Tony Bennett and leading scorer Joe Harris insisted after the Cavaliers orchestrated another blistering shooting performance in their 80-69 victory over Maryland. For a second straight game, though, it was hard to tell Bennett built this program with a methodical, defense-first philosophy.
A week after Virginia missed all but one of its final 14 field goal attempts in an upset loss at Georgia Tech, the Cavaliers exploded for the second-most points they’ve ever scored against an ACC foe under Bennett. Virginia shot 54.2 percent from the floor on Sunday at Comcast Center, including 11 of 19 from three-point range, just three days after registering 78 points in a win over Clemson.
“We’re capable of doing it. It’s just not our style of play,” said point guard Jontel Evans after the Cavaliers (17-6, 7-3 ACC) won for the sixth time in seven games. “When we’re allowed to do it, we can do it and we’ve shown it the last two games.”
But Sunday was different than the seven previous contests in which Virginia shot 50 percent or better this year, because the Cavaliers — owners of the ACC’s best defense — allowed a season-high 69 points against Maryland.
So it was the sheer number of weapons, and their accuracy, that paved the way for a decisive victory. Harris was once again deadly from outside, hitting seven of his eight shots for a game-high 22 points, but three other Virginia players finished in double figures.
Freshman Justin Anderson paced the Cavaliers early with an array of pull-up jumpers over Maryland’s big men. He scored 14 of his career-high 17 points in the first half despite a pregame scene in which “it felt like every other word was someone yelling at Justin,” Harris noted. Anderson was playing his first game at Comcast Center since de-committing from Maryland after Gary Williams retired from coaching.
After halftime, shooting guard Paul Jesperson caught fire, hitting a career-high four three-pointers in the second half. All of them came when the Terrapins had cut their deficit to ten or fewer and offset the effects of Virginia’s 16 turnovers.
Timely baskets were the biggest difference from last week’s meltdown. In Atlanta, the Cavaliers led by nine with less than eight minutes left only to go cold down the stretch. So, in a reversal from the message Bennett is accustomed to delivering, Harris said the coach emphasized a simple tenet the past few days: “Play as hard on the offensive end as we do on the defensive end.”
“I think we did show some young mistakes down the stretch at times, but we overcame it with good shooting,” Bennett said. “I think what happened at Georgia Tech proved, or at least showed us, you can’t take your foot off the gas.”
After the game, the prospect of Virginia emerging as a scoring machine was met with laughs from players and coaches. The Cavaliers were built on defense, and that won’t be changing any time soon. By the end of his news conference, Bennett was already harping on Virginia’s below-average performance on that end Sunday.
That, though, doesn’t mean the Cavaliers can’t enjoy surging through February as an offensive juggernaut.
“Never actually thought I’d be saying that,” forward Darion Atkins said. “But I’m glad that’s the situation right now.”