By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Its lofty national ranking has yet to be a burden for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team. The No. 2 Cavaliers show up to practice ready to work. They show up to games ready to impose their will on opponents.
“They’re a joy to coach,” said Tony Bennett, who’s in his ninth season overseeing UVA’s program. “They understand how they have to play, and they’ve continued to just try to buy in. It’s a good group that way.”
Saturday at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse became the latest ACC team to experience the discomfort of facing ACC leader Virginia. The Wahoos never trailed in a 59-44 win in front of 27,083 — the largest crowd to witness a college basketball game this season.
“Virginia is a tremendous team on both ends of the court,” Orange head coach Jim Boeheim said.
The victory was the 14th in a row for UVA (22-1 overall, 11-0), whose lone loss came on Dec. 5 at West Virginia. The Cavaliers, who entered the season unranked, have been No. 2 for nearly three weeks.
“I don’t think that anybody’s out there falling [for the hype] or anything like that,” senior forward Isaiah Wilkins said, “because I think if you do that, you’ve already lost.
“I think we carry ourselves in the right way and we get after it in practice, and we just go out there and try to have as much fun as possible.”
Sophomore guard Kyle Guy agreed.
“There’s a lot of hype around us,” Guy said, “and we’ve just got to stay humble and be unified as a team and just try to keep our heads down and win the game.”
The ‘Hoos made history Saturday. The 44 points are the fewest Syracuse has ever scored at the Carrier Dome, which opened for the 1980-81 season. The Orange (15-8, 4-6) shot 33.3 percent from the floor against UVA’s Pack Line defense.
“Those numbers and records, that doesn’t matter,” Bennett said. “I just thought for the most part we were persistent in [contesting] their shots, and our guys didn’t let down from start to finish, because we knew that would be key.
“We worked really hard for a couple days on having quick hands defensively, meaning hand to ball whenever they’d shoot, and again getting back [in transition], and that’s why we call it our Pack defense in that regard.”
The Orange has struggled to score against lesser defenses than Virginia’s this season. Syracuse was coming off a 55-51 loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Against the Cavaliers, the Orange had two scoring droughts of more than six minutes — one in each half.
“We have to play better on offense,” Boeheim said. “The reason we shot poorly here was [UVA’s] defense. The reason we shot poorly at Georgia Tech was more on us. Virginia has a lot to do with people shooting poorly.”
Two players — guards Frank Howard and Tyus Battle — combined for nearly 60 percent of the Orange’s scoring. But they were a combined 10 for 34 from the floor (3 for 17 from 3-point range) against the nation’s top scoring defense.
“It’s a real treat to do that, especially on the road,” Guy said, “but we kind of expect that, so hats off to our guys.”
When these teams met Jan. 9 in Charlottesville, Virginia won 68-61, but gave up 19 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points. At the Carrier Dome, the ‘Hoos limited Syracuse to six offensive rebounds and three second-chance points.
“Coach definitely stressed hitting the boards, and I thought the guys did a pretty solid job,” said redshirt junior center Jack Salt, who like Wilkins grabbed six rebounds.
At the other end, against Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone defense, Virginia shot 48.9 percent from the floor.
Fifth-year senior Devon Hall, battling an illness, went scoreless for the first time this season, but he still contributed four rebounds and four assists. Guy was 5 for 15 from the floor and sophomore guard Ty Jerome was 2 for 8. But the rest of the Cavaliers who played — Wilkins, Salt, redshirt freshman forward De’Andre Hunter and redshirt sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite — were a combined 16 for 20.
The 6-9 Diakite matched his career high with 12 points, half of which came on dunks set up by slick passes.
“Our guys did a great job of finding him,” Bennett said.
Those guys included the 6-7 Hunter. All but unstoppable in the high post, he led the Cavaliers with 15 points and had a career-high six assists.
“I think that’s always an important key against zones,” Bennett said, “finding ways to get it to the high post, and then it’s nice when you have guys in there that are making the right plays.”
Hunter’s previous high was four assists, against Lehigh on Dec. 2. Of his playmaking Saturday, Hunter said, “The passes I made weren’t too crazy, I don’t think. Mamadi was wide open, so I just tried to give it to him.”
Boeheim said: “We wanted to come up on Hunter and we didn’t do that. There is no excuse for that. He had 11 [points] in the first half. If we had come up and guarded him it would have helped keep us in the game.”
The Orange pressed full court in the second half, but that gave the Cavaliers little trouble. The first time the ‘Hoos faced the press, they broke it and scored on a lob from Guy to Salt, whose dunk made it 33-23.
“Mamadi was wide open all the time, and Jack was open all the time,” Guy said, “so we just had to make sure that we were making the right decisions when we beat the press.”
Hunter didn’t give up the ball every time, and for that the ‘Hoos can be thankful. Late in the game, he grabbed a rebound in traffic, dribbled the length of the court and made a layup on which he was fouled. Hunter then completed the three-point play to make it 55-39 with 4:11 remaining.
“I saw that they were denying most of the guards, so I just tried to take advantage, get in the open court and make a play,” Hunter said.
THEY SAID IT: Their victory moved the Cavaliers to 11-0 in ACC play for the first time since 1980-81, when they advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four. Among the postgame comments from both sides Saturday evening:
* Bennett on winning at the Carrier Dome: “We knew coming up here what it was going to take. I don’t think there was anything clever. It was just understanding that we’re probably going to have to dig a little deeper. In this setting, we’ve been here before, you’re going to get everyone’s absolute best shot. There’s a heightened level of attention and focus [by opponents] because of the position we’re in. So [UVA’s players should] acknowledge that and be ready for it and play with joy. Play hard, but play with joy.”
* Bennett on Hunter: “He’s really good in that high post, as you’ve seen over some games. Once more he was so efficient with the shot, with the drive, and then I thought he made really good decisions today, even better than last game … I thought he found people at a high level.”
* Guy on Hunter: “He’s a tremendous scorer and a tremendous threat. So when he gets going, [defenders] start to key on him, and we told him that he just needs to make the right decisions, and he did that. And a lot of that was passing.”
* Guy on Syracuse’s defensive tactics: “We prepared so hard for everything that they could possibly throw at us. We knew they were going to stretch the zone at the end of the game, we knew they were going to press us and all that, so we were just prepared.
* Bennett when asked if he’d reminded his players that Virginia had blown a halftime lead and lost to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in 2017: “I’m into this year.”
* Boeheim: “Offensively, we cannot score against teams that are not really good defensively, so obviously you are really going to struggle scoring against Virginia. They are a tremendous defensive team. We rely on our two guards to score and make plays. and when they don’t we have a problem offensively.”
WHAT’S NEXT? The Cavaliers have seven regular-season games left. The next one is Wednesday in Tallahassee, where they’ll meet Florida State (17-6, 6-5) at 7 p.m.
FSU won today at Louisville.
This will be the only regular-season game between the Cavaliers and the Seminoles. UVA has dropped two straight to FSU, which won 60-58 in Charlottesville last season on a 3-pointer by Dwayne Bacon with two seconds to play.
Virginia, 14-0 at John Paul Jones Arena this season, will be back home next Saturday to host Virginia Tech (16-7, 5-5) in a sold-out Commonwealth Clash contest at 6:15 p.m.
ESPN will televise the game, for which the network’s College GameDay show is coming to JPJ for the third time. College GameDay will air on ESPN from 11 a.m. to noon, and then again ahead of tipoff that evening.
Admission and parking are free for College GameDay. For more information, click here.
“It’s awesome for the fans,” Salt said. “They love it. I’ve got some family that’s going to be there as well, so I’m excited. My dad’s coming from England.”
Guy said: “I love that stage … We’re excited for that and excited to play a good Hokies team.”