news second ranked virginia in its loss to 5 houston saw a better version of itself
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Second-ranked Virginia, in its loss to #5 Houston, saw a better version of itself

kihei clark
Photo: UVA Athletics

Virginia got a glimpse at what it can be on Saturday. What it can be, with some work, is Houston.

Houston, a Final Four team in 2020, an Elite Eight team a year ago, is what Tony Bennett wants his Cavaliers to be.

Kelvin Sampson just has his group a little further along right now.

The fifth-ranked Cougars, in their 69-61 win over the second-ranked ‘Hoos on Saturday, were a step quicker to loose balls, made the extra pass, hit the open shots, played the kind of defense that Bennett has made the hallmark of his program.

“You’ve got to be you know, as tough as, we say, whale blubber, or whatever you want to say, on the defensive end. You can bend, but you can’t break, and I thought a few times, at crucial possessions, we broke,” Bennett told reporters after the game

Virginia, coming off an 11-day break for final exams, can’t blame the layoff for this one. The Cavaliers got out to an early 9-0 lead, and it was 15-7 seven minutes in after Reece Beekman drained a three.

It was here that Houston began to impose its will.

A 19-4 Cougars run over the next 10 minutes flipped the scoreboard to a 26-19 Houston lead.

Virginia missed nine of its 11 shots from the field as Houston broke down everything the Cavaliers were trying to do on offense, keeping Beekman and Kihei Clark out of the lane, closing out on perimeter shooters to force rushed shots, and running offense like it was a walk-through against the scout team.

The Cougars had missed their first six shots from the field as UVA got out to that early 9-0 lead.

UH made 13 of its final 21 shots to close out the first half to go up 30-26 at the break.

“I thought early on, the emotion, perhaps defensively we were right, we were guarding, and where it cost us, on the converse, was, I can live with missed shots, you know, you say all that, but like, where we had some breakdowns defensively, you know, just anytime a good team, you break down, they made us pay,” Bennett said.

“Whether it was just, we fell asleep, we helped up, we didn’t help a guy out in the coverage we were supposed to help, and that’s where you’ve got to be willing to go there to win a game like this, to be so mentally sound on the defensive end,” Bennett said.

A layup by Jayden Gardner on Virginia’s first possession of the second half got the margin to two, but it would never get that close again.

Houston opened up an 11-point lead five minutes into the second half, and kept UVA at bay the rest of the way.

Every time Virginia would get back to within hailing distance, Houston had the answer.

A Jamal Shead three with 8:34 to go on a nice ball reversal got the UH lead back to 10.

A Jarace Walker three after a string of nifty passes got another seven-point margin back to double digits.

The dagger came from Tramon Mark. A Kadin Shedrick dunk had Virginia back within six with 2:54 to go, but Mark, after a run of passes that had Walker driving the lane, then dishing out to Mark on the three-point line, drained the open three to get the lead back to nine with 2:30 to go.

It was uncanny the way Houston came up with the big makes time after time after time.

“You’re never going to be perfect in those, but you just want to, again, eliminate and have as few of those as possible in a game like this,” Bennett said. “And for us to be as good as we can because the shots weren’t dropping, you know, we were 6-of-22 (on threes) with some pretty clean looks, you know, and Ben (Vander Plas) was out of sorts today. He’ll grow from that. But you say, OK, you’ve got to lean on your defense in those games, and that’s what we didn’t weren’t able to do in the second half, for sure.”

Nope, not at all.

Houston shot 50 percent (12-of-24) in the second half, 5-of-10 on threes.

Virginia hit seven of its last 10 as the ‘Hoos made things interesting late, but just couldn’t get the stops that it needed to be able to get closer.

The struggles from Vander Plas, who was 0-of-7 from the floor, 0-of-6 from three, in 17 minutes, were noticeable. Vander Plas has been a difference-maker for Bennett as a sixth man this season, but was rendered a non-factor in this one – he didn’t even have a rebound, contributing just an assist in his floor time.

Reece Beekman, still not clearly 100 percent from the sprained ankle suffered in the second half of the win at Michigan, and the hamstring injury he sustained in the win over JMU last week, had a gimpy four points and five assists.

Kadin Shedrick (16 points, 7-of-8 FG) and Kihei Clark (nine points, eight assists) stepped up, among others, but the offense was not the same as it was before the Beekman injury.

Virginia shot 41.7 percent from the floor, and scored 1.052 points per possession.

UVA, before the Beekman injury at Michigan, ranked fourth in the nation in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, but has not been the same since Beekman got hobbled.

The answer for that, from Bennett, is to buckle down on defense.

The lesson there is considering what Houston was able to do after losing its star guard, Marcus Sasser, last January.

Houston went 2-3 in Sasser’s absence last season its way to the Elite Eight finish.

That kind of grit is what Bennett hopes rubs off on his team.

“I think the film will be very valuable to see, hey, look, we’re gonna have to go there,” Bennett said after the game. “You can’t say, well, we’re going to win when our shots are going in. You’ve got to win games like this with soundness and toughness, mentally. The head and heart have got to be connected on the defensive end and not just forget or just lose a little focus. That won’t work. And so that’s a great teaching lesson for us.”

Chris Graham

In addition to being the editor of Augusta Free Press, I've written seven books, including Poverty of Imagination and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, both published in 2019, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For my commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to my YouTube page, youtube.com/chrisgrahamAFP. Want to reach me? Try [email protected].