Tony Bennett won’t budge when it comes to certain basketball principles.
Virginia’s men’s basketball coach believes games are won and lost defensively. He’s a strong believer in running half-court offensive sets, operating at a slow tempo that values efficiency. He wants a leader at point guard, someone who limits turnovers.
When it comes to finding ways to score in the half court, however, he’s more flexible.
That was on full display Wednesday night in a 64-57 win against N.C. State. The Cavaliers attacked the basket and shot 22 free throws one game after scoring 12 points in the paint and shooting just four free throws in a loss to Virginia Tech.
“Different defenses, teams you play against, they make you do different things,” Bennett said. “Virginia Tech was really good jamming the lane, physical and taking away the lane. This team pressured trying to get turnovers but sometimes the lane was a touch more open so you had to make some hard drives and the right decisions off of it.”
Jay Huff and Trey Murphy found success near the rim Wednesday, with Murphy slamming home a couple powerful dunks. The Rice transfer matched Sam Hauser with a team-high 18 points, and it only took Murphy eight shots from the floor to hit his scoring total.
“With the way they play defense, we’re just taking what they give us, and when they’re overplaying like that, I can get backdoor cuts and get a lot of dunks,” Murphy said.
Murphy shot six free throws after taking two against Virginia Tech. He went 3-for-5 on 2-point shots against the Wolfpack after going 1-for-2 inside the arc against the Hokies.
Whether it was N.C. State’s defense or Murphy’s increased aggression, the results were evident. UVa scored 20 points at the free-throw line compared to just 18 points from 3-point range. Typically, the Cavaliers lean on perimeter shooting, but they showcased an ability to drive inside against N.C. State.
While UVa struggled to attack the rim against Virginia Tech in part due to stellar defense, the Hokies are far from an impenetrable force. In an upset win over Virginia Tech on Wednesday, Pitt scored 28 points in the paint and went 22-for-25 at the free-throw line.
Virginia’s free-throw rate, which measures free-throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts, is 21.7. The mark is the fifth-lowest in the country among teams playing this season, according to KenPom. Clearly, it’s not the team’s strength, but the Cavaliers rank in the top five nationally in free-throw shooting percentage.
When UVa arrives at the free-throw line, it converts.
“You look at your team and say, OK, this is who we are but it doesn’t mean you just yield or you say, well we’re not going to get free throws,” Bennett said.
As Bennett and the Cavaliers showcase flexibility offensively and try to find more opportunities to shoot free throws and score in the paint, they’ve also toyed with their rotation in recent weeks.
To begin the season, Bennett would often play upwards of 10 guys, trying to determine which group might work best together. Wednesday, he barely used his bench.
The team’s five starters all played at least 33 minutes, and they combined for all of UVa’s 64 points against the Wolfpack.
“The starters did a great job of taking over and asserting ourselves and really getting good shots for each other,” Hauser said.
Bennett wants bench production in future games. Zero points and one rebound from the bench likely isn’t a sustainable formula for success. In previous ACC games, bench players helped propel UVa to wins.
Wednesday, however, the strategy of leaning on the starters worked.
“I think we need help from the bench, but today our guys, I decided to ride them,” Bennett said. “That doesn’t mean the bench won’t help at key times because they have helped in the past, so just went with what I thought was gonna work.”
In many ways, UVa’s program is predictable. The Cavaliers rely on defense every season, and they move at a glacial pace compared to their college basketball peers.