- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2015

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Louisville closed its warmup with an alley-oop dunk to menacing Montrezl Harrell, who flew through the air with his short dreadlocks rising off his head. It would be his last easy shot of the night.

The Virginia Cavaliers boarded up Louisville’s offense Saturday night. The Cardinals, desperate to run and create chaos, scored 13 first-half points. They shot 19 percent. It appeared ninth-ranked Louisville had a better chance of being hit by a halftime lightning strike or blessed with a lottery win than it did to make a basket. Harrell dunked with 10:33 to play in the half. Louisville would not have another field goal before going to the locker room.

To Virginia coach Tony Bennett, such a half is wondrous. Much of Saturday night’s 52-47 win against Louisville in a full and loud John Paul Jones Arena are what Bennett family dreams are made of. Tony’s father, Dick, scribbled down the nuances of the staunch defense during stops at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin and Washington State. It’s ingrained in Tony, and it’s coursing through this current crop of Cavaliers.

It also caught the attention of Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Already in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Pitino made his first career stop in Charlottesville on Saturday. He was the last coach to walk onto the floor. Flanked by security, he strutted out with his typical cock-of-the-walk stride. Bennett had already walked onto the floor to a huge roar. He waited at his bench, done glad-handing with Louisville’s assistants, to shake Pitino’s hand upon entrance.

Afterward, Pitino praised the Virginia defense while lambasting his team’s “ridiculous” offense. The stature of more than 600 career wins, two NCAA tournament titles and 62 years on the planet allow Pitino to praise and explain an opponent the way younger coaches would or could not.

“Basically what they’re doing, and what separates them, is that they have five guys who are alert to the ball,” Pitino said. “Some programs teach ‘play your man, see the ball.’ They play the ball. It’s truly unique because they’ll give up some threes sometimes and if you make it you’ll stay in the game, like against Duke.

“They’re just well drilled and schooled at what they do. It’s brilliant. I love what they do and I was trying to teach my freshmen six weeks ago to look at how this team plays as one. They’re on a string moving with the ball. If they give up anything its going to be a late three or, if you create so much movement, you’ll do what Chris Jones did in the second half and get to the rim. Unfortunately, we waited until the second half to do that.”

Bennett is so adamant about those principles he pulled center Mike Tobey, among the few on the floor to put a ball through the rim in the first half, because of his first foul. With 4:44 to play in the first, Tobey banged into a driving Cardinals guard. Both hands out, he began to plead with his bench. Bennett turned and sent Anthony Gill into the game. He crouched next to Tobey on the bench to re-explain the defensive coverage he had told him earlier. Subbing him out despite Tobey scoring nine of Virginia’s 24 first-half points confirmed prior threats.

“I was helping too much on the back,” Tobey said. “I wasn’t getting up on the ball screens enough. On this team, you have to be able to play defense, otherwise you’re not going to play. He’s very strict about that.”

They flashed double-teams into the post at Harrell leaving him confused. He was just 1-for-4 in the first half, before bullying his way to a more on-point second half. Virginia’s blitzing traps of the post mixed with guards scraping down at him.

“They have post traps coming out of nowhere for no rhyme or reason,” Harrell said.

Slowly, Louisville found cracks. As much as the Cardinals choked and stalled in the first half, Virginia wasn’t much better. Bennett mentioned his admiration for the Cardinals’ defense earlier in the week. His praise was validated when Virginia shot 33.3 percent Saturday.

The small Cardinals guards opted for straight-line drives in the second half. They were no longer going left and right, finding no space and no viable shots. Though, their press was ineffective throughout — Virginia turned the ball over only twice — forcing the Cardinals to find a way late in halfcourt sets.

Harrell bulldozed through the traps. Louisville guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones kept coming. Virginia’s lead sagged to four points with 1:22 to play. A week after Duke provided Virgina its lone loss of the season after a late 3-point-based rally, flashbacks were occurring.

“I was sitting there, just like, ‘Not again!’” Tobey said. “‘C’mon!’”

By then, the clock was teamed with Virginia. Louisville could not create enough seconds to finish the comeback. Cavaliers point guard Malcolm Brogdon made enough free throws to do so.

The win was another dynamite blow for Bennett to a coaching Mt. Rushmore. He’s the only active coach to have a win over all five active Hall of Fame coaches: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, SMU’s Larry Brown, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Pitino.

“Every coach talks about a fist, of having all the guys playing together,” Pitino said. “They’ve got a great fist.”

Virginia’s defense smacked Louisville in the chops with it Saturday night. Which is enough to make even a defense-obsessed perfectionist like Bennett smile.

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