CHARLOTTESVILLE — Even in its own building in front of an appreciative crowd eagerly anticipating this year’s opening game, the Virginia men’s basketball team couldn’t avoid being reminded of the improbable and heartbreaking ending to last season.
Just before wrapping up his postgame news conference on the heels of a 73-42 win against Towson on Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett looked up at the television screen in the media room and smiled.
“Thanks to our sports information director for putting UMBC’s game on our TV,” Bennett said with a laugh.
That would be Maryland-Baltimore County, the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament when the Retrievers convincingly dispatched Virginia in the round of 64 in March.
Nearly eight months have passed since that fateful night in Charlotte that left Cavaliers players despondent, their national championship aspirations abruptly halted.
They found solace in the message Bennett delivered in the locker room immediately following the outcome, but the first tangible step to rewriting a much more palatable ending unfolded simply through playing again, even against a wildly outmatched opponent.
“Anytime we play basketball, we’re so excited, however last year ended,” Virginia guard Ty Jerome said. “But then again, given how last year ended, I think we were even more excited to come out and get a win under our belts and just play basketball with each other again.
“We were real anxious. We’ve been playing against each other for a while now, the whole summer and then the month of practices. We were excited to play against someone else.”
Virginia pulled away in the second half courtesy of its typically stifling defense that held the Tigers without a field goal for nearly 11 minutes to open a 20-point margin, at which point Bennett began inserting his reserves.
By that time, Jerome was on the Cavaliers bench watching the final minutes of the game he impacted particularly from three-point range. The junior went 6 for 9 from beyond the arc to finish with 20 points. He added four assists and three rebounds in 30 minutes.
Bennett’s first starting lineup of the season, in front of an announced crowd of 13,807, included two players who were unavailable during the Cavaliers’ final game of 2017-18.
De’Andre Hunter was recovering from surgery for a broken left wrist and watched the loss to UMBC from the bench. The 6-foot-7 wing player is the reigning ACC sixth man of the year and, according to multiple mock draft websites, a possible NBA lottery pick.
Joining Hunter as a first-time starter Tuesday was junior Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama who late last month got word he had received a hardship waiver granting him immediate eligibility.
The 6-8 guard is a significant addition to the roster following the graduation of Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, last season’s ACC defensive player of the year.
Key was voted to the all-SEC freshman team but elected to transfer when the Crimson Tide gained an influx of recruits who figured to cut into his playing time.
“Me and Braxton, we play really well together,” Hunter said. “He’s very versatile. When we’re on the court, I feel like we can do good things for our defense.”
There were a few anxious moments for the Cavaliers in the second half when Key lay on the court beyond the baseline in front of the Towson bench. Struck in the face, Key rose and walked to the Virginia bench while holding a towel over his nose but reentered several minutes later.
Also receiving plenty of minutes was another newcomer, freshman Kihei Clark. The 5-9 guard took over ballhandling duties in spots, even when Jerome, last year’s regular point guard, shared the court with him.
Foul trouble in the first half to starting center Jack Salt and reserve forward Mamadi Diakite compelled Bennett to use a small lineup comprising Jerome, Guy, Clark and Key at guard and Hunter playing center for lengthy stretches.
The undersized group still was able to execute the principles of Bennett’s pack-line defense with precision, especially when it helped limit Towson to one field goal over the final 10:29 of the first half.
“I thought we had some good stands,” said Bennett, who introduced a zone press as a defensive wrinkle. “A couple times we got out of position. I thought their physicality was a bit much for us. We were sort of shuffling around on the offensive end early.
“But then I did think we picked it up for the most part positionally and rebounded a little better and again took some stands defensively and got ignited with some ball pressure from Kihei, so it moved in the right direction.”
Read more college basketball coverage: