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UVA's defense coming together, again, for Tony Bennett

UVA's defense coming together, again, for Tony Bennett

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Providence Virginia Basketball

Virginia’s Kadin Shedrick (21) blocks a shot by Providence’s Justin Minaya (15) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Newark, N.J. Virginia won 58-40. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Going into the season, Tony Bennett believed his Virginia basketball team had the makings of another stout defensive group, the trademark of the program Bennett has elevated to a national-championship level during his 13 seasons with the Cavaliers.

“Then, I second-guessed it a little maybe after the Navy game and the Houston game,” said Bennett of his team’s two losses in its first four games this year. “Now, hopefully we can get it back on track.”

Tuesday night, the Cavaliers were simply stifling on the defensive end in a 58-40 win over Providence, claiming the championship at the Legends Classic in Newark, N.J., and winning their third consecutive game.

They pressured the ball, contested 3-pointers, jammed the lane and trapped in the post. The Friars shot just 24% from the floor and committed eight turnovers and UVA blocked eight shots.

“That’s one of the best defensive efforts I’ve seen in years,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “They’re connected. They’re tough. They’re an elite-level defensive team.”

For Bennett, who has a rebuilt roster with three new starters and an inexperienced bench, that has to be music to his ears as his team gets set to host Lehigh on Friday. His team has led the nation in scoring defense in six of the past eight seasons. Last year, it slipped to sixth in the nation, allowing 60.5 points per game, still good enough to help the Cavaliers win the ACC regular-season title.

This year, UVA appears to have all the elements of the great Bennett defenses of the past. Senior guard Kihei Clark is a stick-to-you-like-glue on-ball defender at the top of the pack-line. Sophomore guard Reece Beekman is a long and athletic perimeter defender and sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick is emerging as a dominant rim protector.

Shedrick blocked five shots Tuesday against Providence and has 19 blocks in his past five outings. Shedrick was so good against the Friars, Bennett jokingly questioned whether his post-man could have grabbed a few of the shots out of the air instead of swatting them into the seats.

“He’s so long and his timing is good,” Bennett said. “With his range and ability to kind of track someone down, that’s significant.”

So far this year, the Cavaliers have allowed 55.3 points per game. It’s held its opponent to 55 points or fewer in its four wins, while giving up 66 and 67 in the losses to Navy and Houston.

Lehigh (1-4) has scored 70 points or more in three of its five games this season, including a season high in its 79-72 win over Columbia on Tuesday.

Virginia has six more games before the New Year, all within the Commonwealth. It plays five at home, starting with this three-game stretch against Lehigh (Friday), Iowa (Monday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge) and then its ACC opener against Pittsburgh on Dec. 3.

The Cavaliers play James Madison in Harrisonburg on Dec. 7 before finishing off the calendar year with home games against Farleigh Dickinson and Clemson.

“To go out there and see the fans cheer us on, that’s the stuff that you dream about when you’re growing up,” Gardner said. “Fans just cheering you on at packed arenas. And JPJ’s a great arena. This will be really good for us to lock in.”

Do that, and Bennett may not be second-guessing his high hopes for his defense, after all.

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber


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