Men's basketball crushes JMU, 79-51

Junior trio leads Cavaliers to season-opening victory

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The last time the Virginia basketball team played in Harrisonburg, Cavalier legend Ralph Sampson was in the building following a program-record 30-win season that propelled the Cavaliers to a top-10 ranking entering the season. Twenty-two years later, history repeated itself.

The legendary center was on hand to watch his former team decimate the Dukes, 79-51, in front of a rowdy crowd to take the first step toward validating lofty preseason expectations. Reigning ACC regular season and tournament champion Virginia opens the season ranked ninth in the nation, following its second 30-win campaign, for the first time since the Sampson-led team began the 1982-83 season at No. 1.

Eight months after their historic 2013-14 season ended with a wrenching Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State, the Cavaliers were unfazed by a hostile season-opening atmosphere. James Madison’s Convocation Center hosted one of its largest audience in the past two decades, more than the arena’s stated capacity. Fans streamed into the stadium in droves, showered their opponent with boos early and often, and made their presence felt throughout.

They had reason to hope for just 16 seconds. Virginia led the other 39:44 during a dominant season-opening effort.

“Early in the game being in this environment there had to be some composure,” coach Tony Bennett said after his team scored 51 first-half points. “We talked about not getting sped up, and I thought offensively we were moving the ball well, sharing the ball, getting into the lane, getting rhythm shots.”

The Cavaliers were without four key rotation players from last year's team. Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell graduated,and starting point guard sophomore London Perrantes and reserve swingman junior Evan Nolte were suspended for one game for a violation of team rules. In their absence, a trio of juniors grabbed the reins of the offense while four freshmen executed supporting roles.

Four juniors started alongside redshirt freshman Devon Hall, and the quartet combined for 52 of the team's 79 points. Anthony Gill took control early, scoring nine of his team's first 14 points. The bruising 6-foot-8 junior forward won the opening tip, then knocked down a short jumper, threw down a two-handed slam and converted an and-one to push the lead to 11 just four minutes in, silencing the crowd.

“We knew it was going to be a tough environment: JMU, sold out game,” Gill said. “It's great to be able to come out of here with a win in a road game.”

The Dukes would cut the deficit to single digits just once more, when freshman forward Hari Hall scored two of his team-high 15 points to make the score 14-6. All-ACC junior guard Malcolm Brogdon helped his team take an 18-point lead into the break. He scored 10 points on just seven shots in the opening period and showcased smooth ball handling and improved court vision to guide the offense in Perrantes' absence.

Justin Anderson was the beneficiary of Brogdon's playmaking ability twice in the final minute of the first half. The junior guard knocked down a pair of 3-point jumpers off assists from Brogdon for two of his game-high four made shots from beyond the arc. His marksmanship from distance will likely be pivotal with the team's best shooter from a last season now playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Not one guy can replace what Joe [Harris] did,” Anderson said. “Joe was a really good shooter for us for four years and we have to [replace him] collectively, and that's guys getting open, getting their feet set and being ready to fire.”

Four different freshmen made their collegiate debut against James Madison and they did not disappoint. Hall, starting in place of the suspended Perrantes, finished with five steals and just two turnovers to go along with his first career 3-pointer. Freshman guard Marial Shayok shined with his polished inside-out game, registering a pair of blocks to go along with six points. Fellow freshman guard B.J. Stith played just eight minutes but added two steals.

Freshman forward Isaiah Wilkins, the stepson of NBA legend Dominique, was the most impressive player. With the lead beginning to swell with seven minutes remaining in the first half, Wilkins eyed a short field goal attempt by senior forward Darion Atkins. As the shot went up, Wilkins broke for the basket, meeting the ball as it rolled off the rim and slamming it home to give the Cavaliers a 33-17 edge. He made eight points and five rebounds in 19 minutes of action.

“He has very good feel,” Bennett said. “He's a good high post player where he moves the ball, is a threat with his shot and is real active on the glass defensively. ... I thought that was a real good performance.”

Virginia had little to prove to James Madison, a team that finished last season 11-20 and has never beaten the Cavaliers. But the composed performance in front of a packed crowd and against a team eager to knock off a burgeoning powerhouse may help prepare them for challenges down the road.

“I thought we started off our season with the right mindset tonight: focused, blocking out expectations and distractions and knowing what our job was,” Brogdon said. “That's what we have to do every night.”

The fact that Sampson was on hand to watch the Cavaliers' first game in his hometown of Harrisonburg since 1982 made it just a little sweeter.

“He's a legend,” Brogdon said. “We all look up to him because of what he did, what he established and the legacy that he left. It was cool to see him there in the stands.”

Virginia improved to 16-1 in its past 17 season-openers. The Cavaliers will host Norfolk State Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena for their home opener.

Game Notes: Center Jack Salt was the only freshman scholarship player not to appear in the game. Bennett said that a redshirt is a possibility. “I think he's leaning that way,” Bennett said. “But [that's] not a final decision yet.”

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