By Jeff White (email@example.com)
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — At practice and in games, he’s one of the least emotional players on the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, but redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter has been smiling more and more lately.
And why not? The Cavaliers, who began the season unranked, continue to lead the ACC, and Hunter’s role continues to grow.
“It’s been really fun, especially since we’re winning,” Hunter said Sunday night at Wake Forest’s Lawrence Joel Coliseum. “The team’s winning, and I’m playing well. Overall the experience has been great.”
Starting with UVA’s Jan. 3 triumph over Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum, where Hunter scored 14 points, “the dimension he’s given to our offense has been significant,” head coach Tony Bennett said.
The second-ranked Wahoos (18-1 overall, 7-0 ACC) came to Winston-Salem on a nine-game winning streak. If not for Hunter’s contributions, that streak might well have ended Sunday night.
A 6-7, 222-pound forward from Philadelphia, he scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench to help UVA rally for a 59-49 win over Wake before a lackluster crowd of 10,014.
That performance came three nights after Hunter’s four-point play in the final second of the first half sparked Virginia in its 64-46 victory over Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
“He lifts a huge weight off of all our shoulders when he can do what he did tonight and the past five or six games,” sophomore guard Kyle Guy said.
“This summer, he took his game to another level, and early in the season we didn’t quite see it. But technically he’s a freshman, so he’s just trying to get in a rhythm and get acclimated. But now that he’s hitting his stride, he’s produced a different dynamic for us that helps us a lot.”
Hunter said: “Every game my confidence has been growing, every practice.”
He came into the weekend only 6 for 26 from 3-point range. But he’s shown in practice that he’s a capable outside shooter, and against Wake (8-11, 1-6) he was as effective on the perimeter as around the basket, where his length and athleticism make him difficult to defend.
“He can shoot the ball,” Bennett said.
Hunter, 7 for 11 overall from the floor, made both of his 3-point attempts. After the Demon Deacons scored six straight points to cut the Cavaliers’ lead to one, Hunter’s first trey, from the top of the key, made it 45-41 with 7:33 left.
His second, from the right wing, pushed UVA’s lead to 53-45 with 3:45 remaining, and Wake came no closer than six points thereafter.
“I haven’t been shooting them that great this season,” Hunter said, “but I shoot them every day in practice, so I have a lot of confidence once I shoot them in the game.”
For the Cavaliers, whose lone loss came Dec. 5 at West Virginia, this was not one of their most impressive efforts. Their focus waned after they built a 17-10 lead midway through the first half.
“I thought we were a little careless with the ball,” Bennett said, “and, boy, [Wake] took advantage of it.”
UVA trailed at halftime for only the second time this season. (The first was at West Virginia.) Bennett was curious how his team would deal with adversity.
“That was my message at halftime: `This is good. We’re going to find out more. I know a lot about you guys, but we’re going to find out more, and it’s nothing fancy. Can we dig a little deeper?’ ” Bennett said. “And I thought the guys did a solid job.”
Guy, who finished with a game-high 17 points, opened the scoring in the second half with the second of his three treys, putting the Cavaliers back on top. But Wake answered with a 6-0 run, and UVA was forced to rally again.
When Hunter scored inside to give the Cavaliers a 42-35 lead with 10:06 remaining, they seemed firmly in control. But the Deacons weren’t easily vanquished, and Virginia had to grind out a win on a night when it wasn’t at its best.
“This is a huge learning experience for us,” Guy said. “Even before the game, but at halftime [Bennett] was like, `We look forward to these types of games, to see what we’re really made of.’ ”
Graduate student Nigel Johnson, a 6-1 guard, agreed.
“We just had to deal with [the halftime deficit] and take that on the chin and come out in the second half [and play better]. That’s what we found out about ourselves. We came out in the second half and competed and imposed our will on them and came out with a big road win.”
This marked the eighth time UVA has held an opponent to fewer than 50 points this season. Stout defense helped carry the Cavaliers on a night when two of their starters — senior forward Isaiah Wilkins and sophomore point guard Ty Jerome — were a combined 2 for 13 from the floor.
Also criticial was the play of Virginia’s bench, particularly Hunter and Johnson, who had six points, three assists and an assist in his 22 minutes.
“They gave us a great lift,” Bennett said.
Bench production is “not really something we really stress or talk about much,” Johnson said. “It’s just something that’s really expected. Everybody’s expected to do what they do and play their role, and when your name is called and you come in the game, you’re just supposed to do what you do and provide a lift to your team.”
After playing four of its five ACC games at John Paul Jones Arena, UVA has played — and won — two straight on the road. The travel can take a toll.
“I was joking with the ref before the game [Sunday night],” Guy recalled. “I said, `This time of the year, one game feels like two games.’ ”
ON THE MARK: For the season, the Cavaliers are shooting 77.6 percent on free throws. They were 10 for 10 from the line Sunday night — with fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall making six and Guy the other four.
“That’s why Coach preaches free throws,” Guy said. “We shoot free throws before and after every single practice, no exceptions.”
It was a six-point game when Hall went to the line for a one-and-one with 1:17 to play. He hit both shots and then, after a Wake basket made it 55-49, converted both ends of another one-and-one with 51 seconds left.
“That’s so important,” Bennett said. “These games are a possession or two away, and the way guys can shoot nowadays, you have to cash in when you get to the line.
“We work at it, but you gotta step up and do it. So it was great to see Devon do that, and hopefully he’ll keep doing it.”
For the season, Hall has made 53 of 57 foul shots — 93 percent. Guy (32 of 36) is at 88.9 percent, and Jerome is 15 for 15.
THEY SAID IT: Their sixth straight win over Wake moved the `Hoos to 7-0 in ACC play for the first time since 2014-15. Among their postgame comments:
* Bennett said on Hunter’s increased confidence: “Whenever you see the ball go in, you have some good games, you should play that way: not arrogant, just sure and knowing who he is. I think he knows we want him to be aggressive, but he’s playing hard and sound defensively and offensively. I couldn’t be happier for him.:
* Bennett on Hunter’s uneven play early in the season: “When you redshirt … it’s just a little bit of an adjustment. That’s a whole year they haven’t played at this level, and it’s a big change when you come off your redshirt year as a freshman. I think there was some adjusting to that as well.”
* Guy on staying positive after a first half in which he missed 6 of 8 shots from the floor: “Where that confidence comes from is the coaching staff and the players just believing in him. They continue to pass to me even if I’m 0 for 10 or something like that. They have the utmost confidence in me, and I have all the confidence in the world in myself.”
WHAT’S NEXT? Virginia is back home Tuesday night against No. 20 Clemson (16-3, 5-2). Tipoff is set for 7 o’clock at John Paul Jones Arena.
That will end a stretch of three games in six nights for the Cavaliers. The Tigers have had more rest. They played at home Saturday afternoon and defeated Notre Dame 67-58, though the victory came at a steep price.
Clemson forward Donte Grantham suffered a season-ending knee injury during the second half. The 6-8 senior was averaging 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He was second on the team in blocked shots and third in assists.
“Prayers up for him,” Guy said, “but they’re still a really good team, so we’re looking forward to the test.”
A limited number of tickets remain on sale for the Clemson game. To purchase tickets, click here.
After hosting Clemson, Virginia will play three of its next four games on the road, starting Saturday in Durham. At 2 p.m., UVA meets No. 5 Duke (17-2, 5-2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. CBS will televise the game.