The energy in John Paul Jones Arena felt celebratory.
While expectations remain high for the Virginia men’s basketball program, the pressure to make a deep postseason run diminished after the Cavaliers won a national championship last season.
Fans cheered as basketball returned, and Tony Bennett’s face appeared on the Jumbotron as he walked onto the floor for the first time this season. The celebration continued on the court as Virginia (2-0, 1-0 ACC) overwhelmed JMU (1-1) with its size in a 65-34 win.
The celebration had an added twist in the final minutes, as managers Grant Kersey and Matt Palumbo checked into the game. Bennett added Palumbo’s name to the scorebook prior to the game without Palumbo knowing. With the Cavaliers pulling away, he told the two managers to get dressed.
“We got in the locker room after the game, and their stuff, their dress clothes were all over the floor,” Bennett said. “I said, ‘Hey, wait a second!’ And I go, ‘You guys left a mess in here!’ We were kind of messing with them, but to be able to reward him … that will be one of my favorite memories of my time here to be honest.”
Kersey added a late bucket, while Palumbo missed a jumper for the Cavaliers. Before the managers checked in, Virginia’s starters destroyed the Dukes.
Mamadi Diakite put together enough highlights to silence anyone doubting his improved game. The 6-foot-9 forward started the game by burying a 3-point shot. After showcasing his improved range, Diakite scored his final 13 points of the half from inside the arc.
He easily weaved through JMU’s defense to slam home a dunk to give UVa its second home bucket of the season. He finished the first half with 16 points and six rebounds on 7-of-12 shooting. Diakite finished the game with 19 points, 13 rebounds and two blocked shots.
The Dukes had no answer for Virginia’s size inside.
“It’s hard to prepare,” JMU head coach Louis Rowe said. “We don’t have Huff and Diakite on the scout team.”
JMU’s Matt Lewis kept things interesting in the first half, scoring 11 points in the opening 20 minutes. The Dukes led 15-14 and 17-16 before fading down the stretch and trailing 31-23 at halftime. The Dukes held strong early, but turnovers plagued them. JMU tallied 12 first-half turnovers.
Virginia’s defense remained the story after an historic opening-night performance. UVa held JMU to 34 points on 12-of-50 shooting. On the season, Virginia opponents have scored 68 points on 25-of-105 shooting. The Cavaliers have allowed fewer than 25 points in every half to start the year. Opponents have failed to eclipse 20 points in three of the four halves this season.
“I think overall our team is pretty comfortable playing defense,” Jay Huff said. “It’d be cool to keep a streak of 34-point games consistently.”
The Cavaliers gave JMU’s talented guards little room to operate after the Dukes’ backcourt torched Charlotte in the season opener. Virginia provided constant ball pressure, forcing 19 JMU turnovers. The Dukes only racked up six assists.
UVa’s offense found its footing to start the second half. The Cavaliers scored the first seven points of the second half, part of a 14-3 run that let Virginia take a commanding 45-26 lead five minutes into the second half. The offense combined with dominant defense allowed Virginia to break away from JMU.
Huff didn’t start the game for Virginia, but the Cavaliers opted to use Huff to start the second half. Bennett’s decision to go with a big lineup featuring Kody Stattmann, Braxton Key, Diakite and Huff paid off. The Dukes couldn’t stop the Cavaliers from crashing the glass and attacking the rim in the opening minutes of the second half.
Virginia imposed its will on the Dukes and used its frontcourt, which seems like the team’s strength through two games, to pull away from JMU. Diakite, Huff and Key combined for 44 points and 30 rebounds. Both Key and Diakite finished with double doubles. The Cavaliers outscored the Dukes 34-11 in the second half.
Shooting from deep remained an issue for Virginia, however. The Cavaliers shot 4-of-24 from beyond the arc after going 4-of-25 in the season opener. The Cavaliers hope to work out their shooting issues moving forward. For now, defense and frontcourt dominance rule the day.
“I know we have to play good defense,” Bennett said. “As I told ‘em before the game, ‘It’s not always gonna be pretty, but it has to be gritty.’”