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Dec. 7, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Final exams start Thursday at the University of Virginia, where there will be a corresponding break in the athletics calendar.

The men’s basketball team won’t play again until Dec. 17, when the Robert Morris Colonials visit John Paul Jones Arena. But the Cavaliers will practice periodically during the exam break, and head coach Tony Bennett has a long to-do list.

“I think we just have to keep improving in all areas,” Bennett said Tuesday night at JPJ.

“If we ever lose our hunger, we’ll be in trouble, so we just have to be real hungry to improve during this time, and then every game we play we’ll have to fight and scrap. And if we don’t, then we’ll see what the result will be.”

Some of that hunger was missing Saturday afternoon, when West Virginia rallied for a 66-57 victory over UVA at JPJ. That ended the Wahoos’ 24-game home winning streak.

Against a less formidable opponent, the `Hoos (8-1) had no such trouble Tuesday night. No. 14 Virginia led by 22 points at the half and cruised to a 76-53 win over East Carolina.

The Cavaliers played with more intensity and more focus, redshirt sophomore center Jack Salt said. That dashed any chance of an upset by the Pirates (7-3).

“I knew that we’d get a spirited group after a loss at home,” ECU head coach Jeff Lebo said. “They don’t lose too often at home.”

Five players scored in double figures for Virginia, led by freshman guard Kyle Guy, who had 13 points in 21 minutes off the bench.

The loss to the Mountaineers, who are ranked No. 15 in the latest Associated Press poll, “was frustrating,” Guy said, “but you can’t hold your head [down] too long. You’ve just got to bounce back, regroup with the team and stay unified, and I think we did that tonight.”

Bennett liked what he saw.

“I really challenged the guys to play real hard and have a great hunger about them,” Bennett told reporters. “I said, `We’re a blue-collar program, and if we are, it’ll show up in our effort on the defensive end and offensively,’ and I thought the guys responded … Every game is so important for us to take steps in the right direction.”

Junior swingman Marial Shayok, who scored 12 points in 18 minutes off the bench, said the Cavaliers “wanted to come out strong and play the full 40 minutes. Against West Virginia, we had a good, solid first half, but we didn’t play particularly well in the second half.”

In the first meeting between these teams since Dec. 27, 1968, ECU was hot from 3-point range early and led 12-9 seven minutes in. But the `Hoos soon imposed their will on ECU (7-3), which shot only 36.7 percent from the floor Tuesday night.

“You’re going to have to make contested shots to beat `em, because you’re not going to get anything that’s open or uncontested,” Lebo said. “They’re so solid defensively. Everything is hard. Everything is difficult.”

For the first 20 minutes, the Pirates played a zone defense, and Virginia eventually carved it up. After missing eight of its first nine shots from beyond the 3-point arc, UVA hit its next seven and went into halftime leading 42-20.

ECU switched to man-to-man defense, but that was no more effective against the Cavaliers, who shot 56.6 percent from the floor for the game. Sophomore forward Jarred Reuter was 5 for 5, redshirt freshman forward Mamadi Diakite was 5 for 7, Salt was 3 for 4, senior guard London Perrantes was 4 for 6, Guy was 5 for 9, and Shayok was 5 for 10.

Diakite finished with a career-best 12 points, and Salt matched his career high with eight points.

“We focused the last two days on coming out to defend the home court,” Salt said, “because we don’t like to lose on the home court. It was good to get this win.”

The Cavaliers passed as well as they shot against ECU, totaling 22 assists on their 30 field goals. Redshirt junior guard Darius Thompson led Virginia with a season-high six assists.

Through nine games, Perrantes has a team-high 40 assists, and four other Cavaliers have at least 15 apiece: Thompson (24), Guy (16), redshirt junior guard Devon Hall (16) and junior forward Isaiah Wilkins (15).

There’s similar balance in the scoring column. Nine Cavaliers are averaging at least five points per game. Only Perrantes (10.2) is averaging in double figures, but Shayok and Guy are also capable of putting up big numbers.

Shayok, who’s thriving as UVA’s sixth man, is “wired to score,” Bennett said. “He always does a good job of getting those shot attempts up, whether he’s playing [many] minutes [or not]. But he can touch the paint, and he can manufacture his open shot off the dribble probably as good as any of the guys we have. And he plays hard defensively. He’s really a competitor.”

In one memorable first-half possession, Shayok missed three 3-point attempts (and Reuter grabbed two offensive rebounds). He was unfazed. Ninety seconds later, Shayok hit a trey that tied the game at 14-14.

“He didn’t show a lack of confidence,” Bennett said, smiling.

Shayok said: “You’ve got to just keep shooting and stay confident. We were just due a good shooting game today. We were sort of in a shooting slump the last few games, so everyone put in work these last few practices and it showed up today.”

The Cavaliers’ best pure shooter is the 6-3 Guy, who was a McDonald’s All-American at Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis last season. For the season, he’s shooting 61.9 percent from 3-point range and 55.6 percent overall.

“That’s his strength: his ability to stretch the defense, move without the ball and shoot,” Bennett said. “It just opens up some things. That’s very important. I think we need that, because we’re a different team this year [than in 2015-16].”

The `Hoos had more interior scoring options last season. They’re averaging 18.1 3-point attempts per game this season and, led by Guy, have hit 38.7 percent of those shots.

“That outside shooting helps, whether you’re flying off a screen or just stretching it,” Bennett said. “And I think [opponents] are aware of it. You look at his 3-point percentage so far this year, it’s impressive, and we’ve got to keep doing a good job of trying to get him shots.”

Guy had some defensive lapses against West Virginia and played only nine minutes in that game. During preparations for East Carolina, Guy said Tuesday night, he talked to UVA assistant coaches Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford, and “I was just like, `What can I do, because I really think I can help this team?’

“I’m not complaining about my minutes. I’m fine with not playing at all. I just want my team to win, and I know my minutes are going to fluctuate throughout the year. So some games I’ll be able to put up numbers and help this team, and others I can help this team by cheering.”

Lebo, who starred at guard for the legendary coach Dean Smith at North Carolina, is a fan of No. 5.

“I love Guy,” Lebo said. “He knows how to play. He’s a little better athlete than you think. In person, I was impressed with his ability to move. He’s smart. Every open shot you think is going down when he gets it, whether he makes it or not. As he gets stronger and as he learns, he’s going to be a terrific player here for Tony for a long, long time.”

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