How Houston’s loss to Alabama prepared it for a massive win at Virginia


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — With just over 11 minutes left in the second half of Houston’s 69-61 win at Virginia on Saturday, star freshman forward Jarace Walker was playing, literally and figuratively, long after the whistle. Virginia forward Ben Vander Plas had just been fouled out top, and Vander Plas was doing what struggling shooters do after the whistle is blown: He was shooting. As the two teams sauntered to the sideline for a TV timeout, Vander Plas chucked up a 3 from near where he was fouled. That rimmed out. He grabbed the long rebound and walked toward the hoop, where he began to attempt another “please just SOMETHING go in” post-whistle cry for help. He was having a moment to himself.

Walker started slapping him. Nothing serious. Just playful, good-natured taps on the back, one after the other, like you might do in a layup line. But it was unexpected and annoying and distracting enough that Vander Plas missed a 3-foot shot, his last chance to see something go through the net. Walker, pleased with his work, skipped to the huddle at the other end of the floor.

Such was Virginia’s night — and Houston’s. After surrendering a 15-point lead to Alabama in the final 15 minutes last Saturday, and after quite obviously stewing about it all week, Houston uncorked an irrepressible, indefatigable performance at John Paul Jones Arena. It never took a play off. It never took a minute off. It pushed on every possession, and even sometimes afterward, harassing and grinding and making Virginia uncomfortable for every bit of 2 1/2 hours.

At a program in which every loss is now a harrowing disaster, Houston’s players saw the perils of losing focus mid-game, of not following through on instructions, of not finishing every play. They wouldn’t be perfect, but they would show up to Charlottesville determined that they wouldn’t suffer lapses again. They didn’t.

That was, ultimately, the difference between the No. 5 team in the country and a vanquished, formerly unbeaten No. 2: opposite sides of a teachable moment. Houston had its humbling already. Saturday was Virginia’s turn.

“We were up 15 with 15 to go and we let go of the rope,” Houston guard Jamal Shead said. “We were kind of in the same situation tonight, and I don’t think we win this game if we don’t have the Alabama game.”

“At this level, the separator is are you willing to be rock solid mentally, to refuse to have breakdowns,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “You have to be so mentally sound. And that was the part that we can learn from.”

When Bennett says “learn from,” he means “politely hammer home in film sessions until the players are completely exhausted of seeing it,” which is, more or less, what Houston did all week. (Houston’s version undoubtedly involved more curse words.) Coach Kelvin Sampson acknowledged the Cougars had begun preparing for the UVA game the minute the Alabama game was over — despite having a midweek game against North Carolina A&T. No disrespect to the Aggies, but Sampson didn’t even pretend otherwise: Of course, his guys were already thinking about Virginia, about answering for the Alabama game with a road win against one of the best teams in the country.

And, in the Alabama film, he had a rich vein of potential improvement to plumb. Sampson thought the Cougars looked selfish. Things had been fine until they weren’t, and the moment the Tide made their hectic, stressful run, Houston began to abandon the stuff that makes it really good. Guys weren’t delivering the extra pass. The ball lingered on the first side for way too long. Everything broke down into one-on-ones — Alabama’s defensive specialty, but one of Sampson’s players could have combatted with ball and man movement, with typical tactical execution. Instead, he found his players were suddenly all too willing to try to be the hero, to try to rescue a drifting situation by themselves. “Young guys all want to be Superman,” Sampson said. “It’s about being a super team.”

And so they re-emerged Saturday afternoon with a newfound intensity, focus and desire to share. When Sampson dialed up specific sets and plays, the players saw them through. Having spent a week preparing for Virginia’s baseline dribbles, Houston’s defenders trapped and rotated on cue. The ball flew around Houston’s offensive half; dozens of possessions featured movement from one side of the floor to the next, and occasionally back again, the more the better to create an open look against Virginia’s pack-line D.

Houston’s offensive execution was especially impressive. The Cougars had an answer for every Virginia mini-run, a bucket for every time the Virginia crowd got on its feet. After missing their first six field goals, Sampson’s team stayed the course, generating a steady supply of good looks against a good defensive team. They played with a crispness and a sense of purpose they didn’t approach on their own floor last weekend.

It helps when you have a player as talented as Walker in the middle of it all. Marcus Sasser is Houston’s preseason All-American; he was just 4-of-14 from the field. The entire team was balanced offensively. (This is the first time a Tony Bennett Virginia team has allowed any opposing starting five — literally any, in all of Bennett’s 442 games — to all score in double figures. A ludicrous statistic.) But Walker, dripping talent, was clearly the best player on the floor. He finished with 17 points on 11 shots, seven rebounds, four assists a block and a steal, and he made practically every key play late in the second half, when Virginia and its fans tried to brute-force their way into the lead.

There was an assist to Shead for a crucial layup; a smooth crosscourt pass for an open Tramon Mark 3 after Walker slipped a screen like Jevon Kearse pass-rushing off the corner; and, the coup de grace, a contested Dirk Nowitzki-fade from 10 feet. The freshman’s pace of development is scary to ponder; Walker has unevenly eased into his college career, and Houston is already one of the best teams in the country. If he becomes fully actualized, in this assist-eager, ball-sharing group, well, sheesh. Look out.

“What was really good today was our shot selection,” Sampson said. “We had 17 assists today. I’m not sure we even passed 17 times last Saturday.”

Houston scored 69 points in its 59 possessions, 1.17 on average, a total affront to Bennett’s sensibilities. Offensively, Virginia was fine. Despite all of Houston’s tactical buy-in broadly and attempts at baseline nullification specifically, Virginia generated plenty of open looks throughout the game. Saturday was, funnily enough, not a case of a team being overwhelmed by the kind of dominant, physical defense Houston often plays under Sampson. Houston hit double-digit second-half fouls with lots of time left to play. Virginia got to the free-throw line often enough. The indicators looked positive enough. The Hoos simply could not make shots, particularly at key moments, but also as a rule.

This is something Bennett can live with. Open shots go in or they don’t; you’re fine with good process regardless of results. What he can not brook — what makes him grimace — are mental lapses on the defensive end. Virginia’s system is so tuned and precise that one faulty cog sends the whole thing spinning, and Virginia had several of those on consecutive plays late in the second half, at the same moment the Cavaliers were ostensibly making their run, and instead Walker was taking over. Traditionally, Bennett’s Virginia gets stops on those possessions, maybe with a shot-clock violation thrown in for good measure. The John Paul Jones Arena crowd goes nuts, rinse, repeat, another UVA home win. Instead, Virginia kept missing assignments. Houston kept scoring. Bennett did not care for this at all.

“A couple of our defensive lapses, they’re just little mini fractures, and all of a sudden they cost us,” Bennett said. “That part — I think the film will be very valuable. You can’t say ‘Oh, we’re going to win when our shots are going in.’ No. You have to win games like this. With soundness and toughness.”

It didn’t help that Reece Beekman, injured and considered “day to day” by Virginia’s staff for much of the week, was clearly hurting on the floor. Bennett said Beekman was probably 75 percent or 80 percent healthy, but also easily fatigued, as he simply hadn’t played much basketball since Dec. 6. He defended solidly but lacked his usual offensive spark, finishing 1-of-5 for four points and robbing Virginia of the three-level scoring that had made him the ACC’s best player to date. A healthy Beekman means better days ahead, on both ends of the floor.

So begins Virginia’s own teachable moment. It’s all well and good to be obviously better than the JMUs and Florida States of the world, to get by on your superior skill and system. It’s another to come up against one of the best teams in the country — to play the game on the highest difficulty, where every error is punished. “Just the smallest little thing, they were making us pay,” freshman guard Isaac McKneely said. The whistle blows, and you keep playing; you don’t let your opponent see the ball go through the rim, even in a timeout, even when you’re sort of goofing around. This is life among the title contenders. Everything counts.

“I’m not sure we’re able to do this without the Alabama experience,” Sampson said. In a seven-day span, Houston redoubled its solidarity and focus, and turned a teachable moment into one of the best road wins of the season. What will the Cavaliers do with theirs?

(Photo of Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead: Ryan M. Kelly / Getty Images)


Related posts

Leave a Comment