Feb. 8, 2018

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Early in the game, in an arena where it has often struggled, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team nearly buckled Wednesday night. But the second-ranked Cavaliers steadied themselves in the second half at the Donald L. Tucker Center and, as they have so many times this season, left their opponent frustrated and vanquished.

Virginia, which leads the nation in scoring defense, held Florida State without a field goal in the final nine minutes and rallied for a 59-55 victory before a crowd of 10,657.

“It was a tale of two halves,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said after his team avoided the fate that befell No. 1 Villanova, which lost Wednesday night to unranked St. John’s in Philadelphia.

Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter closed out the scoring, hitting both ends of a one-and-one with 9.2 seconds left, and the Wahoos (23-1 overall, 12-0 ACC) ran their winning streak to 15 games.

“We’re just a very resilient team,” sophomore guard Kyle Guy said. “We’re very unified, and I think that showed a lot in the second half. Even in the first half we never got discouraged. We just tried to step up the level of intensity that we had.”

For the Cavaliers, who came into the season unranked, the victory was only their second over FSU in Tallahassee in Bennett’s nine seasons. It did not come easily. Late in the first half, the ‘Hoos trailed by 11 points, their largest deficit of the season, and they were down 32-22 at the break.

“We got punched in the mouth, and for a while we were kind of lukewarm on how we responded,” Bennett said. “Then in the second half we responded.”

FSU (17-7, 6-6) came in averaging 84.7 points per game. Until Wednesday night, the Seminoles had not scored fewer than 67 this season, and they started fast against UVA’s Pack Line defense.

Florida State hit four 3-pointers in the first seven minutes, and Virginia found itself playing from behind in a hostile environment. The Seminoles’ 32 points are the most an ACC opponent has scored in the first half against UVA this season.

“I knew they were coming after us in this one,” Bennett said. The ‘Noles are especially tough at home, he added, and “I knew we were going to have to scrap and fight. I had a feeling it was going to be a challenge.”

The Cavaliers answered the challenge. At halftime, UVA’s coaches weren’t happy, and neither were the players.

“We want to be better,” fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall said. “We want to be a good team, and we know what we have to do. We know that when we’re not right any team can beat us.”

The ‘Hoos were coming off another impressive road win, that one at Syracuse, where the 6-5 Hall went scoreless for the first time this season. He had a good excuse.

“I don’t know if too many people knew that, but I had pneumonia,” said Hall, one of Virginia’s captains. “But I’m better. I feel better. I’m just trying to get my wind back.”

Hall carried the Cavaliers for stretches Wednesday night, especially in the first half, and finished with a game-high 17 points. He also had three rebounds, three assists and no turnovers in his 39 minutes.

“Devon was, I thought, really good tonight,” Bennett said.

Hall wasn’t UVA’s only hero. Guy scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half. Classmate Ty Jerome, who finished with 15 points, hit one of the end-of-the-shot-clock treys that have become his trademark to push the Cavaliers’ lead to 53-48 with 4:19 remaining.

Mamadi Diakite, a 6-9 redshirt sophomore, came off the bench to score four points and grab a team-high six rebounds. With 3:38 to play, Diakite came out of the final TV timeout to hit two free throws and give the Cavaliers their largest lead — six points.

“I don’t listen to the crowd,” Diakite said. “I get focused and do my job. That’s it.”

After FSU answered with four straight points, all on free throws by guard Braian Angola, UVA senior forward Isaiah Wilkins scored on a powerful low-post move to make it 57-53.

And then there was Hunter, a 6-7 redshirt freshman from Philadelphia. He’d scored at least 10 points in seven of UVA’s previous 10 games, but Hunter got in early foul trouble against the ‘Noles and was quiet for most of the night.

He didn’t score until the 7:40 mark of the second half, when Hunter slammed home a missed layup by Guy, and those were his only points until the Seminoles fouled him with 9.2 seconds left.

As Diakite had a few minutes earlier, Hunter calmly sank two free throws to quiet the Seminoles’ fans.

“That shows his maturity,” Hall said of Hunter. “He’s growing and growing. To be able to step up and knock those down, in his first year of playing, that’s big for him.”

Diakite came in shooting 79.3 percent from the line and Hunter 78.3 percent.

Of Diakite, Bennett said, “I thought he did a great job, obviously, stepping up and shooting them with confidence. That’s always an intriguing spot, but you step to the line and shoot ’em, and I was thankful [for] how he responded in that situation.

“The same with De’Andre. Those are younger guys, and we needed every one of them, for sure.”

The Cavaliers have an ongoing free-throw competition that’s held at the end of every practice at John Paul Jones Arena, and Diakite nearly knocked off Jerome on Tuesday. A day later, Diakite defeated redshirt freshman Jay Huff.

“And then he knocked down two big ones tonight [against FSU],” Jerome said, smiling. “That was good.”

THEY SAID IT: Their victory moved the Cavaliers to 12-0 in ACC play for the first time since 1980-81, when they won the third-place game at the NCAA tournament’s Final Four. Among the postgame comments from the UVA camp Wednesday night:

* Bennett: “The [players] have done a terrific job. Would I have thought we’d be 12-0 [in the ACC] at this point? Probably not, but they’re playing the right way, and they don’t quit, that’s for sure.”

* Bennett: “I think we’ve got quite a few guys who can make a big shot, and you saw that.

* Guy on UVA’s success on the road: “Nobody on the team gets fazed.”

* Bennett: “Where we’re at, being undefeated in the league, you’re going to get [opponents’] focused effort. I understood that.”

* FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton on Angola, who was 1 for 11 from the floor: “They call it being a human being. They’re not machines and they’re not always going to be on every night. Angola played great defense and gave tremendous effort. He had good looks … He had one of those nights where his shots didn’t fall. Every player will have one of those nights.”

* Hamilton on FSU’s offensive struggles in the second half: “You got to give [the ‘Hoos] a little credit. It’s not always what we don’t do. Sometimes, you got to give teams credit for what they do. They’re a very good defensive team and I thought they did a very good job crowding the lane … They don’t give you a whole lot of opportunities. That’s why you have to move the ball, make the extra pass to break their shell down.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Six regular-season games remain for the Cavaliers: three on the road and three at home.

Virginia, 14-0 at John Paul Jones Arena this season, is back there Saturday to host Virginia Tech (17-7, 6-5) at 6:15 p.m. The sold-out game, part of the Commonwealth Clash between the two schools, will be televised by ESPN.

This promises to be a festive occasion. ESPN’s College GameDay show is coming to JPJ for the third time. It will air on the network from 11 a.m. to noon, and then again ahead of tipoff that evening.

With a win Saturday night, UVA would sweep its regular-season series with Tech for the first time since the 2014-15 season. When they met Jan. 3 in Blacksburg, the Cavaliers defeated the Hokies 78-52.

Virginia Tech defeated NC State 85-75 at Cassell Coliseum late Wednesday night.

“Good team,” Hall said of the Hokies, whose standouts include his former high school teammate Chris Clarke. “We’ve got to be ready.”

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