Facing its first true test of the season against George Washington Friday, the Virginia basketball team found itself overly anxious toward the start. In the first half, the Cavaliers missed six of their first seven shots, made just 3-of-7 free throws and finished with 22 points. Ball movement ceased. Tough shots clanged off the rim. The Colonials took a four-point lead into the break.
“Offensively, our unwillingness to be patient and break the defense down ... was really a problem,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We were fortunate to be down four.”
With fans at John Paul Jones Arena screaming for the team to step on the gas in the second half, Bennett implored his team to slow down. Virginia responded with its most impressive 20-minute stretch of the season, using a more deliberate offensive approach to outscore George Washington by 21 points in the second half of its 59-42 victory.
“They came in here extremely hungry like we knew they were going to be, and I think our crowd was so good tonight that we got a little bit ahead of ourselves,” junior Justin Anderson said, who finished with a team-high 18 points. “At halftime, coach got us in the locker room and got us relaxed and settled in. He told us to run our stuff and work longer and harder to wear them down.”
The more patient approach paid dividends early, as the Cavaliers quickly turned the 26-22 deficit into a four-point lead. Anderson then ignited a game-sealing run with the highlight of the night. With Virginia leading 38-34, the 6-foot-6 guard eyed a baseline 3-pointer by junior forward Evan Nolte. As the ball clanged off the rim, Anderson bolted forward and soared toward the basket, finishing with a one-handed jam in one fluid motion.
After the basket, Anderson hollered and the crowd roared. The dunk helped reinvigorate the home crowd and demoralize the Colonials, who scored just 16 second-half points. Virginia closed on a 21-8 run to remain perfect on the season and extend its home winning streak to 14 games.
“The tip dunk, he always makes those explosive plays that ignite the crowd and get things going,” Bennett said.
After Anderson's slam, the Colonials crumbled. George Washington coach Mike Lonergan picked up a technical with 4:32 remaining as his team scored just eight points in the final 10 minutes.
“He's just got that energy,” Lonergan said of Anderson. “We didn't match his energy. He's one of those guys you love to coach and hate to play against, because he's happy out there and he plays hard all the time and he had terrific numbers tonight.”
George Washington led by as many as seven in the opening period, but Virginia was able to stay close despite an uncharacteristically sloppy showing. The Cavaliers shot just 9-of-27 from the floor, had as many turnovers as assists and settled for contested jump shots early in the shot clock. They also struggled from beyond the arc, making only one of six attempts, and trailed for more than 16 minutes in the half.
The Colonials capitalized on the other end, shooting 45.8 percent from the field, knocking down three long balls and scoring 16 points in the paint. They also took advantage of Virginia’s miscues, scoring eight points off turnovers. During one stretch, junior forward Anthony Gill twice had the ball struck away from him, leading to transition layups by junior guard Joe McDonald and sophomore guard Nick Griffin which gave George Washington a 24-17 lead.
“We had a lot of mental lapses,” Gill said. “I know me, myself, I had a lot of turnovers in the first half that were really not helping the team out, so I just decided in the second half to focus down and play team basketball.”
Virginia set the tone for its second half dominance with a strong close to the first half. Out of the under-four timeout, the team swung the ball four times without it hitting the floor, before senior forward Darion Atkins threw a lob to Anderson for a layup that closed the deficit to five. On the very next possession, junior guard Malcolm Brogdon delivered a pinpoint pass from 10 feet beyond the 3-point line. Anderson was on the receiving end again, finishing with an emphatic reverse slam.
The momentum carried over after the break. Virginia opened with a 5-0 run to pull in front before Colonial junior guard Patricio Garino gave his team its last lead of the game, 28-27. Gill opened up a 9-0 run with a powerful drop step for a lay-up. During the spurt, Anderson converted an and-one off a midrange jumper, while Brogdon earned two points on a goaltend, and junior center Mike Tobey rattled home a difficult lefty flip shot inside.
The Cavalier bigs dominated inside at both ends of the floor. On one play, Atkins and Tobey rebounded three consecutive missed layups before Atkins finally converted inside, to extend the lead to 42-35 with 8:59 remaining. Virginia scored 28 of its 37 second-half points in the paint.
“That was a glimpse of what we can achieve every night,” Atkins said. “If we just bring that every single day, every single night, I think it's gonna be a really good team this year. I think this is a really big statement that we played that well in the second half against a really good George Washington team.”
Virginia will host Tennessee State Tuesday at 7 p.m.