Basketball escapes UNC Greensboro to win season opener

Cavaliers looked rusty, but solid defense and timely shots gave them the win

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Sophomore guard Kyle Guy was the Cavaliers' leading scorer Friday.

Alexa Patel | Cavalier Daily

In its first game of the season Friday night, the Virginia men’s basketball team was challenged by a physical UNC Greensboro team that made few things easy for the Cavaliers. Despite struggles on offense, Virginia battled hard and outlasted the Spartans, 60-48. 

The Cavaliers (1-0) slowed UNC Greensboro’s (0-1) offense with great all-around defense, and used some big shots and free throws to keep the Spartans far enough away from coming back. Virginia sophomore guard Kyle Guy led the team with 16 points, and Virginia senior guard Devon Hall chipped in 13 points and six rebounds.

“Nothing came easy, really on the defensive end or on the offensive end — both teams were really going at it,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “I liked what I saw in stretches. There are certain areas where, of course, we have to clean up.”

Both teams came out of the gate slow on offense, with each missing some open looks and turning the ball over. Virginia held an 8-6 lead after the first 10 minutes. The Cavaliers finally got its offense going after Guy stole the ball on defense and hustled down the floor for a fast break layup. Guy drew two fouls on the next possession — one from beyond the arc — and put in four free throws to extend Virginia’s lead to 14-8.

Guy’s newfound aggressiveness allowed him to get to the free throw line for 10 shots in the game — something he and the team struggled to do last season.

"As everyone saw, I was a little more aggressive this year than last,” Guy said. “Coach has been on me all offseason to shoot the ball whenever I'm open and try to create for myself and others, and that's what I tried to do." 

Virginia took a 29-20 lead into halftime, with Guy, Hall and senior forward Isaiah Wilkins scoring all of the team’s points. Cavalier fans got their first glimpse at Virginia graduate transfer guard Nigel Johnson and redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter in the first half, and both took some time to adjust to the flow of Virginia’s offense.

The Cavaliers opened up the second half strong, jumping out to a 19-point lead on the strength of an 11-1 run. Hall scored five points on the run while Johnson and Virginia sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite knocked in their first buckets of the season.

Just as the game looked to be broken open, the Cavaliers began to struggle on offense and turn the ball over. UNC Greensboro began to hit some shots and pulled within eight points of Virginia with less than six minutes left.

“I think we got a little anxious,” Bennett said. “We were in a good spot, up 16 or 17, and we just need to let the offense work and get sound shots — the shot you want. I think you can put yourself in a good spot, but we always either had a quick shot, a forced shot or a turnover.”

After a media timeout, the Cavaliers came out strong and re-extended their lead. Johnson used his quickness to make a tough layup, and Virginia sophomore guard Ty Jerome — who had struggled on offense for much of the night — buried a big three to put Virginia up 13. Each would score again to keep UNC Greensboro from striking distance. Virginia junior center Jack Salt iced the game with two free throws.

Virginia battled through offensive struggles to grind out its first win of the season. The Cavaliers’ aggressiveness in the paint offense was an important positive from the performance, as their 20 made free throws proved to be important in deciding the game.

“There were a couple of good things there — I mean, we got to the line more,” Bennett said. “But with the new guys, it is going to be a process. And hopefully they'll get more and more comfortable and know when to be assertive and know when to let it come.”

One player who seemed to get more comfortable as the game went on was Johnson, who scored all seven of his points in the second half. The Rutgers transfer also added six rebounds in his first action as a Cavalier.

"It was great — especially getting to play in front of the home team fans and get the first one out of the way was great,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty good experience. Now that I got the first one out of the way, I feel like I can get settled in a little bit and just play basketball from here on out."

The Cavaliers will all look to find more comfort and flow on offense as non-conference play continues. The team returns to action Monday night when Austin Peay comes to John Paul Jones Arena as part of the NIT Season Tip-Off.

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