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No. 8 Virginia wins Barclays Center Classic

Cavaliers down La Salle, Rutgers; Gill earns tournament MVP honors

The eighth-ranked Virginia men’s basketball team traveled to the Barclays Center this weekend for the third annual Barclays Center Classic. The Cavaliers squared off against La Salle in the semifinals before besting Rutgers Saturday night in the championship.

The Cavaliers (7-0) showcased their trademark pack-line defense throughout the two contests, defeating La Salle (4-2) 64-56 Friday night followed by an impressive 45-26 win against the Scarlet Knights (3-3) the next night, while working through noticeable offensive struggles.

Against La Salle, Virginia — led by junior guard Malcolm Brogdon’s 20-point effort — jumped out to an early lead, going up 6-0 in the first four minutes. The Cavaliers continued that momentum for the rest of the 20-minute period as they took an 18-point advantage into the break, appearing to be in total control against an overpowered opponent.

“Coach just told us to come out, work hard and focus on our fundamentals,” Brogdon said. “Our focus is defense, but on the offensive end we really worked the ball around looking for the best shots.”

But the Explorers turned the game on its head coming out of the locker room. After visiting the charity stripe just once in the first 20 minutes, La Salle — keyed by redshirt sophomore guard Jordan Price, who also posted 20 points — attacked the lane as often as possible, forcing five Virginia players into foul trouble while taking 24 free throws. With 1:25 to play in the second half, the Explorers had narrowed the deficit to just five points.

“Sometimes when teams get down like that they really get aggressive, put their shoulders down and drive hard,” coach Tony Bennett said. “It’s really hard, with the rules emphasis to keep them off the line. It’s just tough and we didn’t handle their aggressiveness so well but that’s what happens early in the season.”

Though La Salle was able to impose its will following the 13:16 mark — when Virginia led by 20 — the Cavaliers were unable to put up much of a fight on the offensive end, shooting just 36.4 percent in the second half. Junior guard Justin Anderson — who has averaged nearly 17 points per game and is shooting a career-best 68.2 percent from behind the arc — couldn’t find his offensive groove, shooting just 4-of-11 while committing four fouls.

“I like the fact that we were really laboring offensively,” Bennett said. “I thought we got hesitant and passed up some shots, but we thought that if we could push it and get on the offensive glass then we’d be okay, and we were.”

If Virginia’s offensive struggles weren’t enough to make Friday’s contest a nail biter, the profound effect the officiating crew had on the game frustrated both teams. The Cavaliers and Explorers combined for 44 personal foul calls — and caused Virginia to shy away from its signature defensive aggression. Virginia allowed nearly eight points more than its nation-leading 44.6 points per game, and struggled to gain any sort of momentum.

“I think we just didn’t adjust to how they were calling the game,” junior forward Anthony Gill said. “We saw that they were calling the little tic-tac fouls and we didn’t really adjust to how they were calling it, so that affected our game in the end.”

Throughout the weekend Virginia seemed to feed off of a Barclays Center crowd clearly pulling for the reigning ACC champions. Each time the defense held its opponent to under 10 seconds on the shot clock, a roar would rise throughout the crowd. Following the championship win, many of the 4,105 fans in attendance linked arms to sing the "Good Ol’ Song."

“It’s great, a lot of U.Va. fans are from New York,” Bennett said. “That’s neat because last year when we came for the Sweet 16, there were a lot of Virginia people there. There’s a great alumni base here, so for them to stick with us past many bedtimes sure meant a lot. The fans have embraced this team and I think they realize these guys were far from perfect but the young men represent what the fans want them to represent.”

In Virginia’s second game of the weekend, the Cavaliers came out flat, shooting an uncharacteristically low 28.6 percent from the field and a puzzling 1-of-9 from behind the arc in the first half. Though Virginia has had success shooting the three early this season, Rutgers boasts a starting lineup devoid of anyone over six-foot-nine, so Virginia’s propensity to continue shooting — and missing — three pointers was questionable, especially considering the team only took seven three-pointers the night before.

“I think in the second half we were looking inside,” Bennett said. “We said that we had to go inside more because they played a little volleyball with our shots early and we had a little trouble, but we re-established our inside game, we got [Gill] some touches down there, and I thought we were better at that in the second half.”

Though both of the Scarlet Knights’ guards had played a full 40 minutes the previous night, they were able to lead Rutgers on a 15-6 run to finish the first half. Rutgers entered the break up 18-17, leaving a previously raucous crowd silent and looking for answers.

The answer for Virginia, as it has been since Bennett arrived in Charlottesville, was defense. The pack-line wore down Rutgers, forcing the Scarlet Knights’ dynamic backcourt into a combined 25 percent shooting. Additionally, as Virginia bore down in the paint, Rutgers began to fire up desperation three-pointers without success, going 0-of-13 for the game.

The Cavaliers’ defense continued to impress, and held Rutgers to just eight points in the second half, for a total of 26 for the game — the fewest points Virginia has allowed in the shot clock era and the fewest points the Scarlet Knights have scored since the 1942-43 season.

“It’s pretty cool to be a part of,” Anderson said. “It’s one of those things that you look back on when you graduate, so you can come back and know that you did that, but that’s what we want to do. We want to continue to do what we do defensively and impose our will on that end.”

Gill, who averaged 14.5 points through the two games, was named tournament MVP, and Anderson, who scored 17 points and had five rebounds, was named to the all-tournament team. However, in typical Virginia fashion, the pair both credited their success to the team, as Bennett played nine players against La Salle and the entire team in the championship.

“Depth is going to be huge, that’s what we had last year that made us a good tournament team,” Anderson said. “We tell those guys to stay ready no matter what and they do a great job doing that, they bring that lift and it was great to see those guys out there getting comfortable and getting loose a little bit.”

The Cavaliers’ Barclays Center Classic win comes in the midst of a tumultuous time for Virginia fans.

“It’s been a tough semester for everyone, but if we can offer an escape, then that’s important for the Charlottesville community,” Gill said. “If fans can come out and see us working hard and see our shining faces on the court then that’s what we want. … There’s no added pressure though.”

Following a short break, Virginia hits the road once again, traveling to former ACC rival Maryland Wednesday evening for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Tip-off is at 9:15 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.

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