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Ralph knows: Lunch with legend presages Bennett adjustments in UVA win

trey murphy georgia tech
Trey Murphy III led Virginia with 18 points in the Cavaliers’ 57-49 win at Georgia Tech. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Scott German and I had lunch with Ralph Sampson the other day, and, no, this isn’t a humble brag.

OK, it’s a humble brag. But it’s also going somewhere.

I mentioned to Ralph – we’re not really on a first-name basis; the guy is the reason I am a UVA alum, because it was second-grade me that decided, after Ralph led UVA to the 1981 Final Four, that I was going to go to school there, play basketball for Terry Holland, on my way to being elected governor – where was I going with this?

Yes, I mentioned something to Ralph.

About how Scott always texts me at halftime to ask what the hell is going on with our Cavaliers, and that I always answer, we’re a second-half team.

Ralph interjected.

“That’s because Tony is the best there is right now at halftime adjustments,” he said.

Hall of Famer tells us that, you should be convinced, but you’re not surprised to learn that I get another doomsday text from Scott at halftime.

“We’ll be lucky to keep it within 10 points,” he texted, with UVA trailing Georgia Tech, 26-20, at the break.

For those keeping score at home, we did keep it within 10 points.

The final was Virginia 57, Georgia Tech 49.

Which is: eight points.

Tony Bennett, and those halftime adjustments.

I’ve got a working theory: that Bennett plays his cards close to his vest, like a master poker player, not showing what he has, then unleashing his actual game plan in the second half, after his opposing number thinks he has Bennett figured out, and only has three minutes of media timeouts to try to scramble on the fly.

If you’re with me there, you might make more sense of the tale of two halves that we saw on Wednesday in Atlanta than just, well, golly gee, that Tony Bennett sure did fire his guys up in the locker room to go out there and play a bang-up second 20 minutes.

The numbers speak for themselves.

First half: UVA shot 8-of-24, 2-of-10 from three, had 10 turnovers, scored 20 points on 32 possessions.

Second half: 16-of-25, 5-of-10 from three, still had seven turnovers, but 37 points on 30 possessions.

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner clearly decided that Sam Hauser and Jay Huff – who’d combined for 40 points on 16-of-23 shooting in Virginia’s 64-62 win over the Yellow Jackets back on Jan. 23 – weren’t going to beat him again.

Pastner put 6’0” point guard Jose Alvarado on the 6’8” Hauser to try to restrain Hauser on the perimeter, forcing Hauser into the post, where the plan was to sag off UVA guards Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman – 27.8 percent and 31.8 percent from three on the season, respectively – basically daring Clark and Beekman to beat them from three.

“Some other teams have had done that a little bit lately, to a certain extent, but with them putting Alvarado on Sam and almost, it wasn’t like a triangle-and-two, but they were not going to leave those guys,” Bennett said. “With us, them going under ball screens and sort of staying in the lane on Kihei and Reece, which, we just needed to make some outside shots to loosen it up.”

Which, didn’t happen, see above, for the damage.

Bennett stayed in his mover-blocker motion offense, with Hauser and Huff as the blockers, setting screens, and getting caught up in the traffic that had been Pastner’s design.

Hauser got one shot in the post on Alvarado, making it, and one other time, he was doubled, spun the ball out to Trey Murphy III in the corner for an open three, that Murphy missed.

Huff got one shot total in the first half, a contested three.

Murphy kept Virginia in the game in the first half, scoring 13 on 5-of-9 shooting, mostly from attacks of the paint, opened because of the attention on Hauser and Huff.

His teammates, though, struggled – 3-of-15, the turnovers.

The adjustment from Bennett at halftime: Murphy switched to blocker, freeing up Hauser to run off screens.

Hauser, on Virginia’s first offensive possession, catching a pass on the wing off a screen, found Huff in the post for a hook, then on the next got his own pass in the mid-range for a short jumper.

The seas, just like that, began to part.

Clark, ohfer-the-first-half, got an open look from three, splashed it, then Beekman drove the baseline for a backdoor layup.

The quick 9-0 run got Virginia back into it, and it would be a seesaw battle for a long stretch thereafter, ahead of the Cavalanche, which, thanks, Anthony Gill, for your contribution to the lexicon there.

Virginia made eight of its last nine shots in the final 7:39 – three threes, two from Clark, one from Murphy, short jumpers by Clark and Murphy, a backdoor layup by Tomas Woldetensae, a second-chance slam from Huff, another backdoor layup, from Hauser, on a nice dish by Clark.

It was so subtle that Bennett, talking on Zoom postgame with reporters, demurred, was able to attribute the big second half to his team just being more aggressive.

“I kind of just tried to wind our guys up at halftime saying, Throw caution to the wind, but be sound, but be aggressive. You got to go make some plays, you got to go make some plays. You’ve got to get into the paint, and Kihei, shoot it. If they go onto the screen let it ride and shoot it. And he did that,” Bennett said.

Yeah, sure, basketball is a make-or-miss game, but no, it wasn’t as simple as that.

Pastner stuck with Alvarado on Hauser, largely – I say largely because he did go for a couple of possessions with 6’5” Michael Devoe on Hauser during the big UVA run, to try to stanch the bleeding.

And Hauser finished with just eight points, on 4-of-7 shooting; and Huff had six, on 3-of-5 shooting.

But Hauser, even without making shots, had Georgia Tech’s attention, dating back a couple of weeks, and his early second-half make earned him doubles in the post, and extra set of eyes when he had the ball on the perimeter – freeing up teammates for open looks.

Hauser had five assists on the night, and at least a couple more hockey assists, his spins leading down the line to buckets for his mates.

The spacing offensively in the first half was amateurish, allowing Pastner to get away with having his guards cheat under screens without having to fear dribble-drives, post entry passes, ball reversals – basically, anything.

Without the hero ball played by Murphy to put up 13 in the first 20, Virginia has a hard time breaking into double digits by the break.

The second half was what we’d come to expect from an offensive unit that has been hovering around the Top 10 nationally in the efficiency rankings the past few weeks.

That 1.233 points per possession second half would rank fourth nationally on the season in the KenPom.com numbers.

It was a little bit switching up who played three and four, a little bit aggression, another little bit make-or-miss.

It was a lot not giving Pastner 10 minutes at halftime to adjust.

Ralph knows.

Story by Chris Graham


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