CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia forward Anthony Gill stood over George Washington guard Joe McDonald like a towering oak tree when the Colonials finally broke down for good Friday night. Onto the court walked Coach Mike Lonergan, yelling at an official like a corner man trying to buy time for a woozy fighter. Soon came a technical foul and the familiar roar of the John Paul Jones Arena crowd, well aware the home team had just suffocated another foe.
No. 9 Virginia passed its first major test of the regular season with a performance reminiscent of last year’s surge to an ACC title, pulling away from George Washington in the second half for a 59-42 victory.
The Cavaliers, who have now won four games in eight days, turned a seven-point deficit into a 15-point lead over the course of the final five minutes of the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second half with methodical precision. The Colonials shot just 20 percent from the field after halftime and had nearly double the amount of turnovers (11) as assists (6) while Virginia ratcheted up its signature pack line defense.
Junior Justin Anderson led the Cavaliers (4-0) in scoring for the third time in four games with 18 points, including a reverse alley-oop slam and a tip-in dunk that ignited the crowd after a sluggish start.
“There was never a time when we looked at the scoreboard like, ‘Uh oh,’ ” Anderson said. “If anything, we knew what we needed to do.”
George Washington (2-1) simply could not muster enough firepower to combat Virginia’s depth. Junior Kethan Savage finished with a team-high 13 points, but classmates Kevin Larsen, Patricio Garino and Joe McDonald were a combined 6 of 21 from the floor for just 14 points.
The Cavaliers’ constant post trap proved particularly effective. George Washington entered the game hoping Virginia would employ frequent double teams against Larsen, a Montrose Christian product that Lonergan considers “the best passing big man I’ve ever had.” But Larsen had a team-high four turnovers, helping to spur the onslaught.
At one point in the second half, which began with a 14-2 Virginia run that lasted more than seven minutes, George Washington went more than 8 minutes 30 seconds between field goals.
“Our lack of scoring really affected some of our players’ offense and got to us mentally, and then we tried to do much,” Lonergan said. “I thought we weren’t nervous. We were ready to play. But then when they go on a little run . . . we had some plays that we usually don’t make. I was shocked by some of the turnovers out of the double team.”
Virginia began the night ice cold on offense and shot just 33.3 percent from the field in the game’s opening 20 minutes. The Cavaliers had just nine points over the final 8:19 of the first half.
“You can’t expect to start a game with that kind of mindset offensively and be effective or you’re going to be in trouble, and we were,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said.
But on a night when Bennett elected to play more veterans with point guard London Perrantes and Gill mostly held in check, junior Malcolm Brogdon had 15 points, including 11 after halftime. Senior Darion Atkins chipped in eight points, three blocks and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Perhaps the best sign of Virginia’s expectations came at the start of Bennett’s postgame news conference, after it had finished dismantling an NCAA tournament team from a year ago. Asked if he was happy Virginia overcame some adversity Friday, Bennett answered bluntly: “Not really.”
“That’s not the basketball we’re trying to attain, and we’ve got to learn from that or that’ll be a problem,” he said.