With two games of solid offense behind it, a shooting slump officially a thing of the past and a highlight-reel full of Kyle Guy three-pointers to discuss, the topic the Virginia men’s basketball team most wanted to talk about after its dominant home win against North Carolina was defense.
For the Cavaliers, it was a point of pride. In the 53-43 win, Virginia limited the fifth-ranked Tar Heels, who by Monday already had claimed at least a share of the ACC regular season championship and locked down the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament, to their lowest point total since 1979. North Carolina made 17 of 48 field goal attempts — just four of which were made three-pointers. Two days earlier in Raleigh, North Carolina State didn’t fare much better in a 70-55 loss to the Cavaliers, shooting 32.1 percent from the field, including 7 for 27 on three-pointers.
That’s a marked change from what Virginia Coach Tony Bennett and senior point guard London Perrantes dubbed the Cavaliers’ “soft” defense during a four-game losing stretch in February. In three of those losses, opponents — Virginia Tech, Duke and North Carolina the first time around — cumulatively shot better than 44 percent from the field.
In Bennett’s mind, a recommitment to Virginia’s calling card pulled the Cavaliers out of their slide just as much as good offense did. With just Saturday’s matchup against Pittsburgh (15-15, 4-13 ACC) left to play before the postseason, No. 23 Virginia (20-9, 10-7) can land anywhere between a four and nine seed in next week’s ACC tournament, which will start Tuesday in Brooklyn. The Cavaliers already have secured an opening-round bye; clinching the No. 4 seed would give them a double bye into Thursday’s quarterfinals.
“We made a commitment about three weeks ago or two weeks ago — we’re just going to be a better defensive team by the end of the year,” Bennett said Monday. “We just have to be. We have to be better with our slides, tighter in our gaps, and we’re committing to that. Because we have to have it to stay in games, stay attached. . . . We were 19 of 59 from the floor, which isn’t great, but our defense kept us attached and then helped us find just enough offense at the right times.
“We just said, this is the time of the year where softness doesn’t work.”
Perrantes has been the driving force of that defensive renewal. Although the point guard is best known for his strength as a facilitator and offensive director, Bennett tasked Perrantes with guarding the opponents’ best scorers in the past two games while junior forward Isaiah Wilkins was held out of the starting lineup with strep throat.
Perrantes held N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr., who averages 18.7 points, to 13 on 4-for-14 shooting Saturday. On Monday, Perrantes ran himself ragged chasing down North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson, who averages 18.4 points for the Tar Heels — the highest scoring average by a North Carolina player since Tyler Hansbrough averaged 20.7 in the 2008-09 season.
Perrantes held Jackson to seven points on 3-for-10 shooting. The 6-foot-8 forward, who is second in the ACC with 84 three-point baskets, made just 1 of 6 from beyond the arc as the 6- 2 Perrantes lunged to contest every attempt.
The point guard tagged Jackson so effectively he was asked whether he might become a spot defender this late in his career.
“No way,” Perrantes answered straight away, laughing. “I was looking forward to playing against him and against North Carolina, especially after how the first game went. That was probably the most frustrated I’ve ever been just from a defensive standpoint — I feel like he could get whatever he wanted in the first game, especially in the first half.
“When Coach told me I was going to guard him [Monday], I was just — I was ready. I wanted to be there, I thought that I could do it, believed in myself. Team believed in me. I just knew if we were going to win the game, I had to do what I had to do.”
With the Cavaliers’ offense and defense operating at their normal clips, Perrantes might even be able to enjoy his final home game at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I hope that they come out again one more time for me and for the team,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m looking forward to this game, ’cause it went by way too fast.”