By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the road as well as at home, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team is a big draw these days.
Thursday night, for the first time this season, McCamish Pavilion was sold out, in no small part because of the UVA fans who flocked to Georgia Tech’s 8,600-seat arena.
The Cavaliers’ faithful had much to cheer, and they were in full voice in the final minute of this ACC game, much to the consternation of the Yellow Jackets’ supporters. Second-ranked Virginia led for the final 37 minutes and 25 seconds in a 64-48 victory over Georgia Tech.
“I wanted this one bad,” said UVA senior Isaiah Wilkins, a graduate of Greater Atlanta Christian. “You want all the road games, but coming home is special. I’m glad we got the W.”
The victory was the ninth straight for the Wahoos (17-1, 6-0), who were coming off a win over NC State at John Paul Jones Arena.
In that game, they shot 56.1 percent from the floor. Their offense didn’t always operate as efficiently against the Jackets (10-8, 3-2). Eight-and-a-half minutes into the game, the `Hoos were 4 for 15 from the floor. Even so, they led 8-2.
“Sometimes you just gotta hang tough with your defense until the offense gets rolling,” said UVA head coach Tony Bennett, whose team heated up later and finished at 46.6 percent.
The Cavaliers, starting a stretch of three games in six nights, went into the break up 28-19, thanks to a four-point play by forward De’Andre Hunter with five-tenths of a second left in the half.
“I feel like a four-point play kind of hurts [the opponent], because it doesn’t really happen too often,” Hunter said. “Especially having that play right before halftime, it definitely gave us a little spark going into the next half.”
Fourteen seconds earlier, Georgia Tech had closed to 25-19 on one of reserve guard Curtis Haywood’s three 3-pointers. Bennett considered calling a timeout to set up a final shot but decided to trust his players.
They rewarded their coach’s faith in them. Fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall passed the ball to Hunter in the left corner. With time about to expire, Hunter put up a 3-pointer an instant before Georgia Tech big man Abdoulaye Gueye sent him sprawling to the floor.
“I couldn’t really see it go in, because he fouled me,” Hunter said. “But it did go in, so I was happy.”
He made the free throw, giving him 10 points for the half, and then hurt the Jackets after intermission too. The 6-7, 222-pound redshirt freshman from Philadephia finished with 17 points and a team-high seven rebounds in 28 minutes off the bench. Hunter also had a steal and a blocked shot.
“I’m really happy for him most of all,” UVA point guard Ty Jerome said, “because he’s just coming out and, win or lose, he’s playing in the moment, he’s enjoying basketball again. I think he went through a period of time where I don’t know if he was having fun with it. Now he’s back to himself. He’s having fun. He’s being aggressive, and it’s beautiful to see.”
Georgia Tech center Ben Lammers had six blocked shots and stymied the Cavaliers, especially 6-10 redshirt junior Jack Salt, at the rim early in the game. But Bennett countered by inserting Hunter at power forward and moving the 6-7 Wilkins to center.
Hunter didn’t hesitate to attack Lammers, a 6-10, 234-pound senior, off the dribble, and had repeated success with that tactic.
“He’s a lot bigger than me,” Hunter said, “but he’s a little slower on his feet, so I just tried to use my quickness and my length to put the ball on the backboard as quick as possible, so he couldn’t block it.”
At the other end, Wilkins, one of the nation’s top defenders, helped Virginia limit Lammers to four points — eight under his average.
His goal, Wilkins said, was to make Lammers “uncomfortable and try not to let him get to double digits. I take my matchups personally and play hard.”
In what might have been his final college game in his hometown — the NCAA tournament’s South Regional will be at Philips Arena in Atlanta — Wilkins totaled nine points, five rebounds, three steals, two blocked shots and one assist.
“I’m so proud of him, and he’s a joy to coach, just the kind of young man he is,” Bennett said. “How he plays is his personality. He’s such a giver. He’s one of the most continuous defensive players … [and he] knows how to anticipate, and if you can find guys with that, that’s worth its weight in gold for a defensive player. And I think those two things with him, how continuous he is and how he anticipates, are great. And then you’ve got to look at his heart. Not everybody has that kind of heart. He’s got a big heart, and it shows.”
The Jackets had 18 turnovers and became the eighth team to score fewer than 50 points against UVA’s Pack Line defense this season. Sophomore guard Josh Okogie, who came in averaging a team-high 18.8 points for Georgia Tech, scored only nine Thursday night.
“That’s our identity,” said Jerome, who had a career-best three steals. “We have to be strong defensively, and if that ever slips, if we ever lose our way, lose our identity and think we can just play offense and focus on defense, we’re going to fall. Our defense should keep us in every game if we’re right.”
Jerome finished with 12 points and a team-high five assists. Hall and sophomore guard Kyle Guy, with 11 points each, also scored in double figures for Virginia.
“Our word in the locker room before [the game] was just `trust,’ ” Bennett said. “Trust each other, trust your teammates, trust how we’re doing it is the right way.”
This was UVA’s third straight win over Georgia Tech. They’ll meet again Feb. 21 at JPJ, where the `Hoos have won 14 straight games.
THEY SAID IT: After improving to 6-0 in ACC play for the first time since 2014-15, the Cavaliers had reason to savor a decisive victory on the road. Among the postgame comments from both sides:
* Wilkins on playing alongside four perimeter players: “I think it’s a pretty versatile lineup. We can go big or we can go small. I think that’s the advantage of De’Andre. I just try to stay out of their way and get rebounds where I can.”
* Jerome on going small: “It gives us a different look and gives [the defense] a different look.”
* Jerome on whether winning on the road is more satisfying than winning at home: “Coach Bennett and all the coaches say that, but I just think a win’s a win, especially in this league. You get a win at home, you get a win on the road, you enjoy it for the night and then get ready for the next one.”
* Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner: “I thought those were two teams who are really good defensively. I thought we defended well. You just can’t have 18 turnovers. And I’ve said this: In our process of trying to rebuild the program and get where we want to get to, I’ve used two teams to emulate, and that’s Virginia and Notre Dame.”
* Pastner on his team’s turnovers: “Ben [Lammers] had five of them and then Josh [Okogie] had three where they were just really unforced. But you have to give Virginia credit. Coach Bennett and his staff [have] an excellent club.”
WHAT’S NEXT? Virginia is on the road again Sunday, against Wake Forest at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. ESPNU will televise the 6 p.m. game.
Wake is 8-10 overall and 1-5 in the ACC after losing 72-63 at NC State on Thursday night.
UVA has won five straight over the Demon Deacons. In the Cavaliers’ most recent visit to Joel Coliseum, on Jan. 26, 2016, they stunned Wake 72-71 on Darius Thompson‘s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Virginia’s next home game is Tuesday against No. 20 Clemson (15-3, 4-2). Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena. A limited number of tickets will go on sale Friday at 5 p.m. online at VirginiaSports.com.