Men’s basketball looks sharp in NIT Tip-Off Tournament win

Cavaliers beat Vanderbilt, Rhode Island en route to title

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Virginia senior forward Isaiah Wilkins won the NIT Tip-Off Tournament MVP.

Emma Lewis | Cavalier Daily

A hot start to the season gave the Virginia men’s basketball team confidence heading into the NIT Tip-Off Tournament this weekend, where they were set to battle some tough opponents at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Cavaliers (6-0, 0-0 ACC) used big runs and stifling defense from many contributors to capture the tournament title, taking down Vanderbilt and Rhode Island. 

Virginia senior forward Isaiah Wilkins earned the honor of tournament MVP after putting up two stellar performances for the team. The senior scored eight points and had four blocks in the dominant win over Vanderbilt before putting up a career-high 19 points to lead the Cavaliers over Rhode Island. 

In their Thanksgiving Day tilt against Vanderbilt (2-4, 0-0 SEC), the Cavaliers dominated the Commodores from the start, jumping out to a 22-5 lead before the eight-minute mark of the first half. Vanderbilt struggled mightily to break through Virginia’s pack-line defense early on, turning the ball over or taking bad shots on almost every possession. 

Offensively, the Cavaliers were incredibly efficient in the first half, getting contributions from eight different players. Sophomore guard Kyle Guy, Virginia’s leading scorer of the season, started off cold but hit two big three-pointers late in the half to find his rhythm. He would end the game with 18 points. 

The Cavaliers went into the half with a 43-17 lead and never looked back, cruising to a 68-42 win over the Commodores. Sophomore guard Ty Jerome added 14 points, and sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite chipped in 12. Virginia dominated the game in most facets. They moved the ball well, picking up 21 assists, and outrebounded Vanderbilt 42-36.

Virginia advanced to the final game against Rhode Island (3-2, 0-0 A10), who knocked No. 20 Seton Hall out of the tournament in a thriller the day before. The Rams gave Virginia more of a challenge with tight and aggressive defense, especially on Guy. 

“[Rhode Island] did a real good job guarding [Guy],” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “They’re quick. He got a couple looks, but there wasn’t as much time perhaps as yesterday or some of the other games … He wasn’t quite on the way he usually is, but that’s going to happen.”

With their prolific young scorer shut down, the Cavalier seniors stepped up and carried the team to victory. Wilkins saw a mismatch in the low post when Rhode Island sent out its four-guard lineup and took advantage of it all day, hitting seven of his nine field goals. 

“I think I got off to a good start [against Rhode Island,] and the guys did a really good job of finding me on the post, and I just tried to make my shots,” Wilkins said. 

When Rhode Island began to close in on Virginia’s lead, senior guard Devon Hall turned his clutch gene on. The Rams took a 33-32 lead early in the second half — Virginia’s first second-half deficit of the season — but Hall immediately answered with a huge three on the next possession. He would score the Cavaliers’ next six points on another triple and an and-one layup to put Virginia up for good. The senior put up 18 points, looking poised as he got Virginia out of a hole. 

Virginia’s third senior, guard Nigel Johnson, came up big throughout the game in all phases on offense. Johnson put up 12 points, three rebounds and three assists, making two big threes in the first half to keep Virginia’s scoring pace up.

The Cavaliers battled to a 70-55 win over Rhode Island to capture the NIT Tip-Off trophy. Virginia’s captains — Wilkins, Hall and junior center Jack Salt, who picked up 17 rebounds in the tournament — collectively put up a huge performance to steady the team, earning the praise of Bennett after the game. 

“[The captains’] leadership and how they play — they play like leaders, they play unselfish and so hard, and that is contagious,” Bennett said. “I couldn’t be more happy for them and proud to have them as part of this team and leading us.” 

Over the first six games of the season, Virginia has shattered the expectations of many who believed offseason losses would limit the team’s ceiling. With a chance to regain a spot in the AP Top 25 poll this week, the Cavaliers have re-established themselves on the national stage with a new core of players.

A battle with Wisconsin as part of the ACC-Big Ten challenge is up next for Virginia in its non-conference slate. Tip-off between the Cavaliers and the Badgers is set for 9 p.m. Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.

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