CHARLOTTESVILLE – The work of tightening up the normally nationally-best Virginia basketball defense kicked into a high gear after a 98-75 loss to Gonzaga last month. Saturday, at Boston College, UVA looked a lot more like itself in a 61-49 win.
“This is true of most of the teams that I’ve been a part of, it’s been a growing process,” said senior forward Jay Huff, who blocked five shots against the Eagles. “There’s some times where we haven’t quite figured out how to play, just the defense that we play together yet, just because it’s a rotating cast of characters. But once we figure it out … we can really just get to what we know we can do and what has been done traditionally in this program.”
That’s what No. 18 Virginia hopes to do Wednesday against Notre Dame.
A strong defensive showing in the second half of a win over Wake Forest on Jan. 6 set the stage for Saturday’s performance at BC. The Cavaliers now rank second in the ACC allowing an extremely respectable 59.4 points per game, up from the 52.4 mark they led the nation with last season.
“I think we’re touching on it, on what we can do defensively,” said point guard Kihei Clark. “We’re holding guys pretty good, I think [BC] had two last-second shots against the shot clock. But I think we’re doing a good job defensively and I think we can just ramp it up a little bit more and just get a little better.”
UVA (7-2, 3-0 ACC) has won five straight meetings with Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish and 16 of the past 17 games in the series overall going into this afternoon match up at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We’ve certainly had no answer for them,” said Brey.
Perhaps not, but Brey also indicated his team may have found at least portions of the formula to solve its UVA riddle when the teams met on Dec. 30 in South Bend.
Virginia outlasted the Irish 66-57 in its final game of 2020. In that game, Clark had 19 points and five assists as Notre Dame (3-7, 0-4) struggled to keep him out of the lane.
On the other end of the floor, the Cavaliers enjoyed an encouraging bounce-back defensive effort after getting shredded by No. 1 Gonzaga.
To reverse the result, Brey said, Notre Dame needs to look inside first.
Brey said his team found a bit of a rhythm last time playing inside-out, getting the ball on the low block to forward Juwan Durham in a position to score or pass.
“We figured out offensively in the second half how to play against them, playing through Juwan in the low post,” said Brey. “So that helped us. … I’d love to see us throw it into the post and get in a rhythm offensively.”
Defensively, Brey said Notre Dame has to be more effective keeping Clark from penetrating. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound California native is averaging 15 points and 3.8 assists in the team’s past four outings, including the earlier win over the Irish.
“He really put a lot of pressure on them,” said UVA coach Tony Bennett. “Kihei’s quickness was good and he backed it up with good decisions.”