The Virginia men’s basketball team passed another big test on Sunday.
The Cavaliers faced their biggest deficit of the season, trailing Arizona State by nine points in the second half of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic Championship Game. But like it did against Vermont, Virginia (6-0, 1-0 ACC) responded with key baskets and smothering defense down the stretch to remain unbeaten.
Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s 48-45 victory over the Sun Devils.
Freshman guard Casey Morsell has been playing high-level defense since the season opener against Syracuse, but he had struggled offensively. Through the first five games of the season, Morsell was averaging 2.4 points per game and shooting 13.9 percent from the field.
That changed on Sunday, when Morsell scored a career-high 19 points and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer for the Cavaliers.
The freshman started gaining confidence in the first half against the Sun Devils (3-2). He found success going to the rim, throwing down several dunks en route to 10 first-half points.
Morsell then came up big in the final moments of the second half, scoring the Cavaliers’ final five points. His jumper with 2:12 remaining gave UVa a 45-43 lead. After Arizona State tied the game at 45 on a Rob Edwards layup, Morsell gave the Cavaliers the lead for good with a 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining.
With Morsell, it always felt more “when” than “if” he would get things going offensively.
“When” was Sunday.
The Cavaliers looked out of sorts early in the second half and Arizona State took advantage, using a 19-0 run that spanned over the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half to take a 35-26 lead with 13:32 to go in the game. As poorly as Virginia was playing at that point, the lead felt more like it was 20.
But to the Cavaliers’ credit, they did not panic, made the needed adjustments and slowly whittled away at the Arizona State lead. UVa tied the game at 38 with 5:48 to go on a pair of Mamadi Diakite free throws, then outdueled the Sun Devils in the final minutes thanks to Morsell’s key buckets and several defensive stops.
Virginia’s shooting struggles continued on Sunday. The Cavaliers finished 18-of-49 from the field and 5-of-16 from 3-point range. To its credit, Arizona State played solid defense, but Virginia got plenty of good looks at the basket and just didn’t knock the shots down. The Cavaliers didn’t score a point for the first 6:50 of the second half and had a scoreless drought of nearly 10 minutes in the game. With tougher tests on the horizon, Virginia needs to find more offensive consistency.
Despite the offensive struggles, the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense continues to smother opponents.
Arizona State became the latest victim on Sunday. The Sun Devils, who entered the matchup averaging 83.2 points per game and had eclipsed 90 points in two games, were held to 45 by the Cavaliers. Virginia was particularly stingy down the stretch, holding Arizona State to 10 points over the final 13:32. The Wahoos also forced 15 turnovers and blocked five shots.
Virginia is now an astonishing 92-2 under Tony Bennett when holding teams to less than 50 points. The Cavaliers have done it five times this season.
Virginia has made a habit of winning holiday tournaments. The Cavaliers have now won seven straight November tournament championships. In addition to the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, UVa also has won the Emerald Coast Classic, Charleston Classic, Barclays Center Classic, Corpus Christi Challenge, NIT Season Tip-Off and Battle 4 Atlantis.