CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the second straight game, Virginia ’s offense paved the way for its defense in the first half. Tuesday’s contest against Clemson marked the extension of an unusual trend for a squad that entered the night giving up fewer points per game than all but one team in the nation, and Coach Tony Bennett knew that likely would not suffice.
Trailing the Tigers by four at the break, Bennett told his players: This has to change. We have to get after the ball. We have to give much more than you think you’re giving.
The Cavaliers held Clemson to 10 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half and their hot shooting continued until game’s end. Virginia capped a three-games-in-six-days stretch with a 65-61 victory that pushed its record to 18-3 (5-2 ACC).
“You guys might not understand, but I understand that we walk a fine line,” Bennett said afterward. “We need everything. We’re not the deepest. We can’t afford to have many breakdowns. We have to play at a very high level on the defensive end to be in games and then to win games.”
The Cavaliers fell well short of that level in the first half Tuesday. Clemson (11-10, 3-4) shot 48 percent from the field and became just the fourth opponent to tally 30 or more points against Virginia in the first half this season.
In fact, the Tigers became Virginia’s second straight opponent to score at least 30 points before the break after North Carolina State recorded 31 on Saturday. The Cavaliers defeated N.C. State, 61-60.
“We were playing soft,” junior guard Jontel Evans said. Clemson “came out and tried to throw that knockout punch on the offensive end, and in the second half we just came out and manned up and played to our ability.”
The Cavaliers’ offensive efficiency eased the team’s defensive burden considerably. Virginia made half its shots in the first half Tuesday and then improved its shooting percentage in the second half. Led by fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott (23 points) and sophomore guard Joe Harris (19 points), the Cavaliers shot 55.8 percent on the night, their second-best mark of the season.
Evans got into foul trouble in the second half, which allowed Bennett to implement a three-man motion attack with Scott, Harris and fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski. While that trio set screens for each other in the paint, the other two Virginia players on the floor remained on the wings to clear space.
When Evans is on the floor, his defender typically backs off of him and helps clog the lane. But Clemson did not have a free defender with Evans on the bench, and the three-man motion approach yielded many open looks for the Cavaliers.
Virginia shot 63.2 percent from the field in the second half, and Harris’s ability to hit shots — he made 5 of 6 three-pointers — prevented Clemson’s defense from honing in on Scott.
“It’s pretty easy, because now teams are worried about Joe and they’re forgetting about me. Or they’re worried about me, and they’re forgetting about Joe,” said Scott, who made 8 of 11 shots. “Either way, either one of us is going to get production.”