By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In November 2015, four high school seniors signed letters of intent with the University of Virginia men’s basketball program.
The other two — De’Andre Hunter and Jay Huff — redshirted in 2016-17, getting stronger and honing their considerable skills. Monday night marked the first time UVA fans were able to watch both Hunter and Huff play in a game, and the redshirt freshmen put on a show at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I love to see our young guys be able to get more opportunities and be successful when they’re doing it,” fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall said after scoring a career-high 19 points in Virginia’s 93-49 victory over Austin Peay.
The 6-7, 222-pound Hunter, who played 10 minutes Friday in Virginia’s season-opening win over UNC Greensboro, looked much more comfortable three nights later. In 21 minutes, he made all three of his shots from the floor, including a 3-pointer, and scored 13 points against Austin Peay (0-2).
“My first game, I hadn’t played in like two years, so I had jitters,” Hunter said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake, but the coaches just told me to be confident and play my game, and that’s what I tried to do.”
The 7-1, 230-pound Huff, who did not play against UNCG, outdid his classmate Monday night. He hit his first six shots — all in the first half — and then closed the scoring in Virginia’s 93-49 win with another trey in the final minute.
“He was great,” Hall said. “He shot it with confidence. To not play [in the opener] and then hop in a game and do that, you’ve got to have some toughness with you.”
Huff, who entered the game to a huge ovation from the crowd at JPJ, finished with 16 points, four rebounds, five blocked shots and two assists in 24 minutes. He was 7 for 8 from the floor and scored in a variety of ways: on 3-pointers, a putback dunk, a left-handed tip-in, a stepback jumper from the baseline, a jumper from the elbow.
“It was great, just seeing him [shine] out there, getting buckets, blocking shots,” Hunter said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Austin Peay’s first-year head coach, Matt Figger, is a former assistant at South Carolina. Figger first saw Huff, who’s from Durham, North Carolina, several years ago. Huff attended Voyager Academy, and his high school team took part in a camp at South Carolina.
Huff was painfully thin then. He can still get pushed around inside, but the way Mike Curtis, UVA’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball, has helped change Huff’s “body is incredible,” Figger said.
In the offseason, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett fielded multiple questions about Huff and Hunter and the impact they might have on the team.
Their talents “were on display tonight,” Bennett said after the Austin Peay game, and “it was good to see them out there doing that. That’s a weapon when Jay can step out and shoot the three like that. It stretches and puts pressure on the defense. What I most liked about De’Andre tonight was, and he did a good job against Greensboro too, is his ability to slide and guard and use his length. That’s so important as you continue to play teams and those perimeter guys get going, to have someone who can bother [opponents], so we’re going to keep trying to instill that in him, to be a stopper.”
Huff had hoped to make his UVA debut against UNC Greensboro, but “I trusted the coaches,” he said Monday night. “Obviously, I would have liked to play. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t want to play, but I trusted that Coach Bennett knew what was best, and it worked out.”
It was impossible to miss the crowd’s excitement whenever Huff stood up to enter the game. “I was happy for him. I was thrilled. I love that,” Bennett said.
“Jay is a humble young man … He’s just going to keep working. I like the fact that he had success, and again the fact that the fans appreciated that. He embodies our pillars, and we’re going to keep getting him stronger, more assertive, more physical, better defensively, and I’ll like what we have in time.”
Also making their UVA debuts Monday night were Marco Anthony and walk-on Austin Katstra. The Cavaliers’ other true freshman, Francesco Badocchi, is recovering from a knee injury and will redshirt this season.
Anthony, a 6-4 guard, had two points and four assists in 19 minutes. Katstra, a 6-6 guard, is a graduate of Albemarle High School with deep ties to UVA and its basketball program. His father, Dirk, the longtime executive director of the Virginia Athletics Foundation, and grandfather Richard Katstra also played for the `Hoos.
Katstra, full of adrenaline, air-balled his first shot Monday, a 3-point attempt from the right side. But his second, a trey from the left corner off a pass from Huff, found its mark, to the delight of UVA players, coaches and fans.
“I think it’s official that Austin is a better player than his father, Dirk,” Bennett said later, laughing. “All you have to do is watch. The first shot that Austin took, that reminded me of Dirk from everything I heard, but him knocking down the 3, I think he moved past Dirk in ability. So that was good. But Jay, he was looking for him, and that’s Jay.”
STEPPING UP: Through two games, Hall (16 ppg) is the Cavaliers’ leading scorer. Coming into the Austin Peay game, his career high was 18 points. Hall surpassed that before the midway point of the second half.
As a redshirt junior, Hall averaged 8.4 points per game, which made him the top returning scorer this season.
“We want our guys to be assertive,” Bennett said. “We need those guys to get to the line and drive and look for their open shots, and I think Devon’s improved every year as much as anybody. He just keeps working and working, and I believe that he’s capable of that. I was just talking about finding that sweet spot, not forcing but still being aggressive and being sound, but not being hesitant. I think he’s learning to establish that. It was good to see him get to the lane and then knock down some shots. He’s earned the right to be assertive.”
EXPANDING HIS GAME: Also scoring in double figures Monday night were sophomore guard Kyle Guy (14 points) and graduate transfer Nigel Johnson (10 points), a fifth-year senior. Guy is known for his outside shot, but he drove repeatedly against the Governors.
Of Guy’s nine shots from the floor, only two were from 3-point range.
In 2016-17, Hall used to say “I had a one-dribble limit in the game,” Guy said, smiling. “So this year, I’m trying to move to three dribbles. I just want to be aggressive and help the team in any way I can. I know getting to the basket is part of my game, and I’ve worked on that.”
THEY SAID IT: Postgame interviews produced a lot of material. Among the highlights:
* Huff: “I wasn’t thinking much. I wasn’t thinking about being aggressive or anything. I just kind of went out there and things happened.”
* Figger on his UVA counterpart: “Tony’s one of the best — not only coaches in the business, he’s one of the best people in the business. You guys have got a treasure of a coach here, and he is such a genuine human being.”
* Figger: “We weren’t prepared to play grown men today. I had five freshmen on the floor a lot in the second half.”
* Hunter: “I definitely want to be the stopper for this team, or one of them. I don’t like guys scoring on me, so I just try to take people scoring on me personally and try to stop the man in front of me.”
WHAT’S NEXT? In a non-conference game to be shown by CBS Sports Network, Virginia (2-0) plays VCU (2-0) at Siegel Center in Richmond at 4 p.m. Friday.
UVA leads this series 11-2. In the teams’ most recent meeting, on Dec. 6, 2014, the Cavaliers won 74-57 at the Siegel Center.
The Rams, who defeated North Florida in Richmond on Monday night, have sold out 101 consecutive games at their 7,637-seat area. VCU is in its first season under head coach Mike Rhoades.