Not thinking, just playing: Virginia hitting stride on offensive end

uva basketball

Photo by Dan Grogan

I’ve repeatedly referenced an interview that I did with former Virginia star Anthony Gill when trying to explain how the 2019-2020 UVA team might have a higher ceiling than you should otherwise rightfully assume.

Having told the story a million times, I’ll go Cliff’s Notes version this time: basically, picking up what Tony Bennett needs you to do in the Pack-Line and mover-blocker can take time, but Gill said Bennett told him that there’d be a time when it would all just click, and at that point, he wouldn’t be thinking, just playing.

Photo Gallery: Virginia defeats Boston College

It eventually happened for Gill, who went on to be a top 10 player as a junior and senior, and my thinking was, with so many guys either being new entirely – Tomas Woldetensae transferring in from JUCO, Casey Morsell coming from high school, Kody Stattmann going from garbage time to 20 minutes a night – or shouldering more responsibility (Mamadi Diakite, Kihei Clark, Braxton Key and Jay Huff were all role players on the national-title team last year – it would eventually happen for these guys.

Funny thing in terms of timing. For Gill, it was Feb. 5, 2014, when he had 13 points in 25 minutes in a 77-67 win over Boston College in JPJ, after having gone through a stretch of putting in single digits in 11 of 12 games heading into that one.

Gill, averaging 7.4 points per game going into that BC game, would go on to average 10.9 points per game down the stretch as Virginia won the ACC regular-season title, the program’s first ACC Tournament championship in 38 years and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

Back to the funny thing in terms of timing: hey, Boston College, in JPJ, and we get a sublime performance from a UVA team that seems to be finally hitting on all cylinders on offense.

“To have five guys in double figures, the emergence of Tomas shooting the ball, the efficiency of Mamadi and Jay shot it well today, that certainly helped. I do think we are trying to run good stuff, and we are a little smoother and more efficient with it, but it certainly makes a big difference when you make some threes,” Bennett said after Virginia’s 78-65 win Wednesday night, in which the Cavaliers shot 56.7 percent from the floor and 10-of-17 from three, both season-bests.

But it’s not a one-game trend, by any means.

Over Virginia’s past four games, the ‘Hoos are shooting 47.7 percent from the floor and 43.8 percent from three, and scoring 1.077 points per possession, more in line with the national-title team (which shot 47.4 percent from the floor, 39.5 percent from three and scored 1.234 points per possession).

Keep in mind that Bennett, staff and his guys had figured out a way to win games when the ball wasn’t going in the basket with any regularity – UVA has three wins in games in which it didn’t break 50, and two more when it gets either 50 or 51.

Virginia has now won six of its last seven, and is averaging 63.1 points per game in that stretch.

“They’re just playing with so much more confidence,” said Boston College coach Jim Christian, whose team upset Virginia, 60-53, on Jan. 7 in Chestnut Hill, holding the Cavaliers to 32.7 percent shooting in that one.

“The same shots are open. There’s just a little more pop in their step, a little more pop in their shot. It’s why Tony’s a great coach.”

To that point from Christian, about there being more pop in the step, in the shot: it was noticeable Wednesday night in JPJ.

“We all come in as shooters, and we knew that we can shoot the ball. I think making it just comes with confidence,” said Stattmann, who drained two second-half threes, one after Christian did what so many opposing coaches had done this season to stymie Virginia – going zone.

Christian quickly shelved the zone after that Stattmann make, which is how it’s supposed to work.

Teams only zone you when you can’t beat them from behind the arc. When you’re going 10-of-17 from deep, that opens up gaps for dribble drives and paint touches, and gets you more good looks at the rim.

Virginia was 15-of-18 shooting on shots at the rim Wednesday night.

Think those numbers through: 30 points on 18 shots at the rim, 30 points on 17 shots from three.

That’s 60 points on 65 shots. An effective field-goal percentage on those shots of 92.3 percent.

That’s Steph Curry or Malcolm Brogdon shooting 65 free throws.

Not saying you’re going to see that kind of efficiency every night from here on out, but it sure feels like this team has taken a big step forward, and knows it.

“Jay came out and made some big shots to start out the game. We got some momentum from that,” Key told reporters after the BC win. “Tomas was hitting threes tonight, 4-for-8 from three tonight and 5-of-10 from the field. Everyone is feeling great, Kihei is moving the ball around, we had five guys in double figures. We’re trusting each other. The coaches are letting us play more free offensively.”

Story by Chris Graham

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