By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG — With 7:15 remaining in the second half and eighth-ranked Virginia leading 60-35, the exodus began in earnest at Cassell Coliseum. Hundreds of Virginia Tech fans decided they’d seen enough and began heading toward the exits.
The early departures spared themselves more agony. The Cavaliers never trailed in this ACC men’s basketball game and won 78-52 late Wednesday night.
In an arena whose capacity is 9,275, the 146th game in this series drew only 5,945 fans. The UVA supporters in the crowd — and they were visible and audible in most sections — relished every minute of it.
“It feels great,” fifth-year senior Devon Hall said after his final visit to Cassell Coliseum as a Virginia player. “We lost here the past two years, so being able to get a win like that is good.”
On a night when the Hokies (11-4 overall, 0-2 ACC) struggled at both ends, the Wahoos (13-1, 2-0) could do little wrong, especially on defense. Tech came in averaging 88.8 points per game and ranked first nationally in field-goal percentage (53.2) and sixth in 3-point field-goal percentage (42.7).
“It was a little bit of a perfect storm,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said. “They were a little off, but we played good basketball.”
Against Virginia’s Pack Line defense, Tech shot 36.2 percent overall and 16.7 percent from beyond the arc. Nine of the Hokies’ points came in the final 1:15, long after the outcome had been decided.
“You can tell that they are well-schooled in what they believe and what they want to do relative to any sort of offense that comes their way,” Tech head coach Buzz Williams said when asked about the Cavaliers’ defensive effort. “I thought they were elite — if not better than elite — against us, for sure.”
Redshirt junior guard Ahmed Hill, the Hokies’ leading scorer this season, had made at least one trey in each of his previous 14 games. He missed his only 3-point attempt Wednesday night and finished with four points. Two of Tech’s other top offensive threats, senior guard Justin Bibbs and freshman swingman Nickeil Alexander-Walker, combined for seven points against the Cavaliers, who lead the nation in scoring defense.
“I think these are the games that Coach Bennett looks forward to the most,” Virginia point guard Ty Jerome said. “He’s such a competitor, and we feed off of that. We take pride in our defense, and we love facing high-powered offenses.”
The Cavaliers all but shut down the Hokies’ vaunted fast break. Bennett emphasizes transition defense before every game, but especially against opponents such as Virginia Tech.
“We talked about [how] this is a battle for tempo,” Bennett said.
That battle went to UVA, and it wasn’t close.
“I think a lot of it was getting back on defense,” Hall said. “They play so fast. If you watch any of their games, they’re flying up the court with just one pass. We kind of harped on it in practice and in the locker room, to make sure we get back.”
Virginia was coming off a one-point victory over Boston College, which had two chances in the final seconds to pull off an upset at John Paul Jones Arena. In that game, the Cavaliers’ top three reserves — fifth-year senior Nigel Johnson, redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite and redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter — were a combined 1 for 11 from the floor.
Against Virginia Tech, UVA’s bench might have been the difference. Hunter, a 6-7 forward, led the `Hoos with 14 points, and the 6-9 Diakite added nine points. Johnson, a 6-1 guard, contributed six points and two assists in his 15 minutes.
For the season, seven Cavaliers are averaging at least 6.3 points per game apiece.
“This team so far, it’s different guys at different times,” Bennett said. “But that bench is important. I was pleased with what I saw, and we’re going to need that. Diversified scoring for us is huge.”
Hunter said: “When [UVA’s reserves] got in against Boston College, we kind of slacked a little bit. The coaches just let us know that, and we tried to come in [Wednesday night] and keep the same energy and try to expand the lead as much as possible. And I feel like we did a good job of doing that today.”
His customary position has been small forward, but with post players Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins and Diakite in foul trouble Wednesday night, Hunter was used extensively at power forward, with impressive results. He made 5 of 8 shots from the floor and grabbed four rebounds in 24 minutes.
“What he did was really important for us,” Bennett said.
Hunter said: “It feels great. My second ACC game, my first ACC game on the road. To have a solid performance really boosts my confidence, and I’m looking to carry it on to the next game.”
For the `Hoos, this was “a true team effort,” as Bennett put it.
Hall, who scored only one point against BC, sank a trey 23 seconds into the game Wednesday night. He finished with 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals, with no turnovers.
Sophomore guard Kyle Guy started slowly but ended with 13 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one steal. The 6-7 Wilkins contributed six rebounds, a game-high three steals and two blocked shots, and the 6-10 Salt went 2 for 2 from the floor and 2 for 2 from the line and blocked two shots, both on the same possession.
Salt played so well in the second half that the Tech students who had been jeering him fell silent.
And then there was Jerome, the reigning ACC player of the week. In 34 minutes, the 6-5 sophomore hit 3 of 5 shots from long range and totaled 13 points, five assists, three rebounds and two steals. He didn’t turn the ball over.
Of Jerome’s many highlights Wednesday night, the most memorable might have been the pass he threw from near midcourt to Salt, alone under the basket behind the Hokies’ full-court press. Salt’s slam made it 37-23 late in the first half.
“He controlled the game,” Bennett said of Jerome. “I thought he was good. That pass he made, I had the perfect angle on it. I said, `What’s he doing?’ and then, `Oh, good pass.’ ”
Jerome said: “I’ve made that pass before and it hasn’t worked before, but this time I really took my time. I saw [the Hokies’ defenders] come. They took away the pass back, they took away the middle, and [Wilkins] did a good job of flashing up. He took that back guy up from me, and I saw Jack wide open deep and made the right read.”
The Cavaliers had only three turnovers in the first half and took care of the ball well after intermission too. Even so, Williams chose to leave the Hokies’ full-court press on. Virginia was unfazed.
“I thought we had the right mix of patience, breaking it with soundness, but looking to score on the back end of it,” Bennett said.
Jerome said: “I think our press attack was awesome today, because we didn’t just beat it, we got points on the back end. Jack did a great job on the dunk, and whoever was in that middle, whether it was Dev, Kyle, Nigel, myself, Dre, they did a great job just pushing the ball and making the right decision. Those points on the back end were huge. Every time [Tech] made a run, we were kind of able to get a bucket.”
HARD WORK REWARDED: Passers-by heard a sustained roar from inside the visitors’ locker room a few minutes after the game ended. The Cavaliers were celebrating not only their victory, but a special moment for junior guard Justice Bartley.
“I got to do something that is one of the greatest joys as a coach after the game,” Bennett said.
Virginia had an extra scholarship for this season available, and with about 30 seconds left in the game, Bennett told Wilkins that he was going to award it to Bartley, who joined the program as a walk-on in 2015.
“I said, `So have your water bottle ready,’ ” Bennett recalled.
Diakite said: “We kind of knew before the end of the game Justice was going to get his scholarship. We didn’t tell him anything, but we just went and got some water and waited for the opportune moment, when Coach said he was offering him a scholarship.”
When that moment came, Bartley’s teammates swarmed over him and poured water on him.
“Let me tell you, my heart stopped,” Bartley told reporters later. “I still don’t believe it. It’s kind of surreal for me. It’s been a long journey, but I’m so thankful for it.”
Like so many walk-ons before him during Bennett’s tenure, Bartley, who’s from Lilburn, Georgia, embodies the five pillars upon which the Cavaliers’ program is built: servanthood, unity, passion, thankfulness and humility.
“I’ve done my best to try to embrace that role,” said Bartley, who closed the scoring for Virginia on Wednesday night with a 3-poiner that made it 78-48. “I’ve tried to never fall short of that, and I’ve always brought it every single day, day in and day out, so it was always something I looked forward to.”
Bennett said: “You should have seen the joy in his eyes and the excitement in the [other] players’ eyes. I’m on a high from that.”
WHAT’S NEXT? A three-game homestand begins Saturday for Virginia. At 1 p.m., UVA hosts reigning NCAA champion North Carolina (12-3, 1-1) at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena. ESPN will televise the game.
UVA has won four straight games over UNC at JPJ.
“Storied program,” Bennett said of the Tar Heels. “We’ll have to be ready, and I’m sure it’ll be a great atmosphere in the arena.”
No. 12 North Carolina lost 81-80 at No. 24 Florida State on Wednesday night.
The Cavaliers host Syracuse on Tuesday night and NC State on Sunday, Jan. 14. For ticket information, click here.