At Wednesday night’s game between Seattle University and Virginia at KeyArena, I took on the unofficial role of correspondent to ESPN Insider’s John Hollinger, a UVa alum watching the score with great interest. At one point, after the Redhawks had conclusively demonstrated they weren’t going away, Hollinger wondered just what was going on: “How is this close?”
On paper, the game should have been a mismatch. While Virginia has gotten off to a strong 10-1 start against a light schedule to reach the polls, Seattle U has struggled against a difficult early slate, winning just once in eight games against D-I opposition. The last time I was at the Key, Stanford waxed SU by 23, so KenPom.com’s projection of a 14-point Cavaliers win sounded about right. Instead, the Redhawks led for the first 25 minutes and had possession down one in the final minute and a half before succumbing to an 80-77 defeat.
The first bit of explanation is that Seattle U has been a giant-killer since Cameron Dollar took over the program in 2009. The Redhawks won the first game of the home-and-home series in Charlottesville last year and beat Oregon State each of the last two years. With the exception of the blowout loss to the Cardinal, Dollar has been particularly successful against coaches he faced in the Pac-10 as an assistant at the University of Washington, including Tony Bennett.
Still, the offensive explosion from Seattle U was unexpected given the way the team has struggled to score this season. The Redhawks’ 38 first-half points threatened their total against Stanford, a game in which they managed just 17 points before halftime. Part of the credit goes to Dollar putting sophomore Sterling Carter, the team’s best shooter, back in the lineup at two-guard. Carter scored 17 points and knocked down four three-pointers. As important was the way his presence opened things up for teammates, including point guard Cervante Burrell, who came off the bench to hand out six assists against no turnovers.
Virginia’s top-10 defense had surprising difficulty keeping Seattle U out of the paint and away from the offensive glass. Senior forward Aaron Broussard loomed large on both counts. Six of Broussard’s eight boards came at the offensive end. He also got the Redhawks back into the game after Virginia took a double-digit second-half lead by scoring 15 of his career-high 29 points in the final 8:33. Broussard aggressively attacked the basket, then heated up from midrange.
The strategic change that caused trouble for the Cavaliers was Seattle U going to its full-court pressure, a staple last season the team has used less frequently this year. Virginia was able to beat the press for layups at times, but committed some turnovers that led to easy buckets. The real upside of the press was neutralizing the impact of UVa star Mike Scott, who scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. The Redhawks asked the 6-5 Broussard to guard the 6-8 Scott, which worked well when Scott turned to face up but created major issues on the glass. In the first half alone, Scott scored 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting. He got just three shot attempts after halftime, though he did plenty of damage at the free throw line.
With a legitimate star in Scott (who has essentially become a poor man’s Derrick Williams in terms of his impact at the collegiate level), good shooters on the perimeter and Bennett’s sound defensive scheme, it’s easy to see why Virginia has been able to overwhelm lesser competition much of the year. However, Seattle U showed a gameplan for how ACC foes with superior athletes and better shooting can find some weaknesses to exploit.