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Jan. 10, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, there was magic in almost every aspect of its performances against ACC rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina last week.

The Cavaliers defeated the Hokies 78-52 at Cassell Coliseum last Wednesday night. Three days later, UVA beat the then-No. 12 Tar Heels 61-49 at John Paul Jones Arena.

Tuesday night was more of a grind for the third-ranked Wahoos. Still, after an uneasy final minute against Syracuse at JPJ, they came away with a 68-61 victory that extended their winning streak to seven games.

“I knew this was going to be a battle,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said. “Those are two teams that really pride themselves on trying to play very good halfcourt defense.

“It was good to finish it. Though it was wobbling a little bit, we still finished it, so we’ll take it.”

Two free throws by fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall pushed UVA’s lead to 64-50 with 1:24 remaining, at which point the game’s final 80 seconds seemed little more than a formality. But the Orange (12-5 overall, 1-3 ACC) pressed full court and, with the help of three Virginia turnovers, ran off nine straight points in 30 seconds.

Four more free throws from Hall in the final 24 seconds — he was 8 for 8 from the line Tuesday night — helped the `Hoos (15-1, 4-0) secure the victory, but the finish was more dramatic than necessary.

“I thought we played solid, but it just left a little bad taste how we turned it over at the end,” Bennett said. “But [it was] a quality win, and you just keep fighting.”

As have countless opponents during Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s Hall of Fame career, the Cavaliers struggled against the 2-3 zone defense that is the trademark of his program. They shot a season-low 37.7 percent from the floor Tuesday night.

Boeheim’s shortest starter, junior guard Frank Howard, stands 6-5, and the tallest, junior center Paschal Chukwu, is 7-2, and the Orange’s length made it difficult for UVA to score around the basket. The Cavaliers attempted a season-high 27 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. They made enough of them (nine) to end a two-game losing streak in this series.

“You just want to get quality shots,” Bennett said. “Maybe two or three, I thought, were maybe a little rushed and not good shots, but we had some really good looks.”

Hall said: “When you get good looks, you take `em. It’s that simple.”

Sophomore guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome hit five and three treys, respectively, for UVA, and Hall had its other 3-pointer.

Jerome, who played only 13 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, missed his first five shots from the floor Tuesday night. But he came alive during a two-minute stretch of the second half in which he made three 3-pointers, the last two from NBA range.

“I can’t miss all of them,” Jerome said, smiling.

Guy scored a game-high 22 points, and Hall contributed 13 points, seven rebounds and a career-high eight assists. Hall was displeased with his four turnovers, two of which came in the final minute, “but I thought he played a good, tough game,” Bennett said.

So, once again, did redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter, whose strong play off the bench this month has been a major storyline in the Cavaliers’ winning streak. The 6-7 Hunter worked the middle of Syracuse’s zone effectively and scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half.

“He got loose in the middle,” Boeheim said. “We were obviously concerned about the 3-point shooting, and he made some good plays inside.”

Hunter impressed at the other end, too. “I thought his length bothered a lot of their shots,” Bennett said. Guy said: “It seems like the past few games he’s really found a rhythm … and [taken his game to] another level. He’s playing really good basketball when we need him to.”

Hunter had 14 points against Virginia Tech. Against UNC, he contributed 10 points and seven rebounds. He’s a superior athlete whose teammates and coaches continue encouraging to assert himself on the court.

“I think you can see it in the way he plays when he’s confident and aggressive and when he’s not,” Jerome said. “He’s played a different level the past two games. It’s just a matter of believing in himself, I think.”

Late in the game, with Virginia leading 54-46, Hunter soared for what would have been a spectacular contested dunk. Alas, the ball caromed off the back of the rim, and the Orange came down with the rebound, but Bennett had no issues with Hunter’s decision.

“He was attacking,” Bennett said.

Hunter said: “That’s what [UVA’s coaches] tell me every day in practice. They just love it when I’m aggressive. They don’t like it when I’m passive. I just try to play as aggressive as possible. I feel like it has been helping me so far.”

Against the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense, Syracuse shot 38.3 percent from the floor. Three players — Howard, 6-6 sophomore Tyus Battle and 6-8 freshman Oshae Brissett — supplied 75 percent of the Orange’s scoring.

Virtually all of Syracuse’s points came off one-on-one moves. The Orange had only three assists on its 23 field goals. Its previous low this season? Nine assists.

“We’ve got to find a way to score some more points if we’re going to be effective,” Boeheim said. Where Syracuse was most effective Tuesday night was on the boards. Led by Chukwu, who had 16 rebounds, the Orange had a 41-31 edge in that category. Chukwu grabbed 10 of his team’s 19 offensive rebounds.

For all of its shortcomings, however, Virginia prevailed. In the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight in 2016 and at the Carrier Dome last season, second-half comebacks carried Syracuse to stunning wins over UVA. The Cavaliers made a stand Tuesday night.

“I think getting any type of win in the ACC is big,” Hall said. “This is a tough league.”

THEY SAID IT: The victory was the Cavaliers’ 44th in their past 48 ACC games at JPJ. Among the postgame comments from players and coaches:

* Bennett on the Orange’s length around the basket: “You can’t just muscle your way through it, and with a 7-2 guy [in Chukwu], there’s not going to be a lot of good stuff happening when you challenge them at the rim.”

* Boeheim on the Cavaliers’ offense: “They hurt us a little bit inside. Hunter hurt us inside. The second half, we did a better job on him but we didn’t get to Jerome a couple times and Guy once, and those guys are good shooters. They’re going to make shots.”

* Hall: “We’ve got some toughness as a group. We’ll learn from the mistakes we made and keep getting better.”

* Boeheim on the game-high seven turnovers by Howard, who has 75 this season: “If you’re a freshman you can’t do that. If you’re a sophomore you can’t do that. So if you’re a junior, you can’t make those [mistakes].”

* Hunter on attacking Syracuse’s zone: “In practice, we use six [defenders], so it makes it a little harder to get in to the middle. Once I did get into the middle in the actual game, there were only two people in front of me instead of three. It was a lot easier to score in the middle than it is in practice. Practice really helped us a lot this game.”

* Guy on his recent shooting struggles: “If I see another ball go in and out, I’m going to lose my mind. But the confidence never wavered. As you saw, I kept shooting it. [The other UVA players] make fun of me because I just keep shooting it, whether it goes in or not.”

* Boeheim: “Generally, [the Cavaliers are] good against pressure. The first time they got a dunk … If we pressed the whole game, they’d beat us by 32 points.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Virginia concludes a three-game homestand Sunday night. At 6 o’clock, UVA meets NC State (11-5, 1-2) at JPJ in a game ESPNU will televise.

The Cavaliers have won five straight over the Wolfpack, which is in its first season under head coach Kevin Keatts.

Keatts, a former postgraduate coach at Hargrave Military Academy, about 120 miles south of Charlottesville, came to NC State from UNC Wilmington. In the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament, Virginia rallied to defeat UNCW 76-71 in Orlando, Florida.

A very limited number of tickets remain for Sunday night’s game. To purchase tickets, click here.

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