Eight Games, Pt. 5: Sweet Virginia

The Game

Along with (obviously) the Jerry Green games, this is the lone game in this series that I did not watch the entirety of live. I flipped this one on after halftime, so this series represents the first time I’ve gotten to see the first 20 minutes. A learning experience for everyone!

This first Virginia roster features three names that most every NBA fan is going to know: Malcolm Brodgon (sophomore), Joe Harris (senior), and (yes) Justin Anderson (sophomore). That’s three top-40 NBA Draft picks on this roster, and Anderson ended up the 21st overall pick a year later. It’s a talented roster that Tennessee enters as a small favorite over.

Tennessee wins the jump ball, and, in a very Tennessee-like sequence, Jeronne Maymon misses a jump shot, gets his own rebound, then puts it back up for a 2-0 lead. It goes back-and-forth a bit early, but two important things occur: there are no ties in this game after the 0-0 opening; Virginia cuts it to 6-4 three minutes in. The last of those is the closest the game will ever be again.

If you’d like a nice summation of how a Tennessee game could go during this season, they had as many games where they shot 45% or better from three (seven) as they did games where they shot 15% or worse. You kind of knew within the first few minutes what sort of night you were in for. So it’s probably a good sign that Tennessee’s first three of the game, a Jordan McRae attempt to go up 13-4, goes down.

It is probably an even better sign that the next three-point attempt, from Josh Richardson, also goes in.

Maybe it’s also good that Tennessee’s next three-point attempt is good. As is the next one. As is the one after that. Tennessee opens this game by hitting its first five three-point attempts, an outrageously good hit rate for a team that didn’t even crack 32% for the season as a whole. You could pick any of them to focus on, but this Richardson three makes it 27-10 and forces Tony Bennett to call his second timeout just nine minutes in.

Tennessee is on fire. Virginia isn’t. But you figure that, eventually, that changes. Virginia wasn’t an elite shooting team this season, but they were better than Tennessee, who closed the season almost precisely at the national average. This is also against a defense that entered the game second in America in adjusted defensive efficiency. To be on pace for over 100 points against Virginia at any point, as we know today, is near-impossible.

Tennessee does enter a cold spell after that three in that they don’t score again for nearly three minutes. The nice thing for Cuonzo Martin and company: Virginia takes advantage by way of scoring all of three points in the meantime. Even despite Tennessee going three possessions without a point and allowing UVA to put up six shot attempts, it’s still 27-13, Tennessee.

Antonio Barton reopens the scoring for Tennessee:

And it’s back on. After Virginia makes it 27-13, they proceed to have a scoring drought of their own. It’s worse than Tennessee’s. The Cavaliers go 3:29 without scoring, but unlike the 3-0 run they pulled on Tennessee, the Volunteers take a greater advantage. It goes from 27-13, Vols, to 36-13. Tennessee doesn’t possess a massive paint advantage (10-8 points in the paint first half), and they don’t really do a ton in the mid-range, either. It’s just fantastic defense that forces a ton of gross-looking Virginia misses.

That 9-0 Tennessee run turns into a 14-2 run after even more scoring. Tennessee’s up 41-17 briefly over a top 25 team in KenPom. It’s miraculous. Virginia does manage nine points in the final four minutes of the first half, but it’s 48-26, Tennessee, at halftime.

This is where I remember turning it on and being floored by the scoreline. Considering the previous year’s fixture between the two, a game that ended with a 46-38 scoreline that felt even worse than it sounds, I figured another turd of a game was in line. What would’ve led me to believe otherwise? Tennessee’s 15-point home win over Morehead State the Monday prior? Virginia’s own 10-point win over Norfolk State?

This really wasn’t a game of true importance at the time. Many, many Tennessee fans were frustrated with the direction of the program under Cuonzo. Even the most forgiving fans were starting to wonder what was actually improving within the program. That’s why the Alamo Bowl (a game that ended up being pretty terrible) seemed like the superior watch.

The halftime stats are sort of stunning in their own right. A team that shot 32% from deep in this season made 8 of 11 threes; a team that rarely forced turnovers made Virginia cough it up on 23% of their possessions. It was a Cuonzo-era team playing against type, and it was wonderful.

Still, I turned it on at halftime just sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Tennessee would win, sure, but the idea of them beating Virginia even by 22 seemed pretty unlikely. I figured there’d be a run at some point, Tennessee would push the lead back out, and then your final score would be something relatively normal. You know, a score like Tennessee 78, Virginia 61 – an impressive win, but nothing historic or that memorable. Just your garden-variety good win.

I was subjectively affirmed in this when Virginia scored in the first five seconds after halftime and the first four points of the second half.

Then I was proven very, very wrong over the course of the remaining 19:06 of basketball.

It started with Jarnell Stokes bowling his way to the hoop for an and-one to make it 51-30.

Then it was Jordan McRae who’d hit a three to push the lead back to 24. And then Tennessee just…kept scoring. I don’t know how else to really put it, folks. Virginia never got the game within 20 points again after Anthony Gill made a jumper to get it to 62-43, Tennessee, with 10:35 to play. 39 seconds later, Stokes pushed it back to 64-43:

And honestly, that was that. That one play gave Tennessee a 99.4% chance of winning, per KenPom, and it felt all but over. Again, though, you figure Virginia has a run eventually, maybe in garbage time, but nothing unusual is coming.

Virginia would proceed to score two points over the next 3:51. Tennessee, meanwhile, scored 13.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Ostensibly, Tennessee was playing one of the best defenses in America. Yes, Virginia’s offense appeared to be capital-B Bad at the time, but this was Tennessee dumping 77 points in 34 minutes on a team that held top-20 (at the time) Wisconsin to 48 a few weeks prior. No team had yet to put up more than 75 in a game on this edition of Virginia, and this was after only one team (North Carolina) cracked 75 on them the season before. Tennessee had put up 77 with 15% of the game still to go.

It just kept getting worse. McRae would slam one down to make it 79-47, Tennessee.

Antonio Barton, a player who didn’t attempt even two free throws a game, drew an and-one to put Tennessee up by 35.

And, again, that was that. Virginia wouldn’t get within 35 the rest of the way, and only a pair of late free throws kept Tennessee from winning by 37. In one night, Tennessee completely repudiated everything Tony Bennett had hoped to build at Virginia while potentially restarting their own season with a huge win before SEC play began. It was stunning, hilarious, and, for once, purely fun to watch.

NEXT PAGE: Moonlight mile

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