By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — At the end of a grueling stretch — seven games in 22 days, all against opponents that could end up in the NCAA tournament — the University of Virginia men’s basketball team can finally rest.
The Cavaliers don’t play again until next Wednesday night, when Georgia Tech visits John Paul Jones Arena.
“I’m super excited,” senior forward Isaiah Wilkins said late Tuesday at Miami’s Watsco Center. “That’s the best news I’ve had all week.”
Some would argue the Wahoos received bigger news Monday, when they took over the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press poll for the first time since 1982. But Wilkins’ point was well taken. The ‘Hoos (24-2 overall, 13-1 ACC) have navigated a series of stern challenges over the past three weeks, with only one misstep, and they’re looking forward to a hard-earned break.
“Now we get a bye week,” head coach Tony Bennett said, “and we’ve got to use it to rest, but also to get better and tighten things up.”
On Saturday night, in front of a capacity crowd at JPJ, Virginia Tech ended UVA’s 15-game winning streak, rallying in overtime for a 61-60 victory. Two days later, the Cavaliers flew to Florida to face a Miami team that defeated the Hokies in Blacksburg early this month.
In a 9 o’clock game televised by ESPN, the ‘Hoos never trailed Tuesday night. Against the nation’s top-ranked defense, Miami shot 21.4 percent from the floor in the first half. The Hurricanes heated up after intermission, but Virginia, led by redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter, delivered in critical situations and secured a 59-50 victory.
A 6-7, 222-pound forward from Philadelphia, Hunter scored 15 of his game-high 22 points in the second half. His highlights included a four-point play that put the ‘Hoos up 55-40 with 3:02 remaining.
“De’Andre played really well,” Bennett said.
Virginia, which attempted a season-high 38 3-pointers against Virginia Tech, shot only 17 on Tuesday night. The Cavaliers wanted to get the ball into the paint against Miami, and they succeeded.
“Monday, we had a good practice leading into this,” Bennett said. “It was brief, but it was pretty spirited, and I thought the guys had the right mindset.”
Virginia’s Pack Line defense held 6-11 sophomore Dewan Huell scoreless and limited 6-5 freshman Lonnie Walker IV to six points. Huell entered as the Hurricanes’ leading scorer (12.3 ppg), and Walker was next at 11.3 ppg.
“We did a good job of making them earn,” Bennett said. “They didn’t get many clean looks.”
That’s been the case, of course, in most games of this magical season for the Cavaliers. The win — only their second in nine games against Miami in Coral Gables — moved the ‘Hoos a step closer to the ACC’s regular-season title and validated their lofty national ranking.
“Any time you get a road win against a talented team, it’s a good night,” sophomore point guard Ty Jerome said, “and we came together tonight and got a good win.”
After learning from a colleague Monday that Virginia, despite the loss to Virginia Tech, had climbed from No. 2 to No. 1 in the AP poll, Bennett shared the news with his players that afternoon.
“Right before practice, I said to the guys, ‘Hey, congrats. You’re No. 1. Do you guys know that?’ ” Bennett recalled. “And they looked at me like, ‘Of course.’ ”
The No. 1 ranking is a great accomplishment for which they should be thankful, Bennett told his players. “And then I said, ‘But now let’s get into the moment. Let’s be in the moment.’ And that’s enough. What else can you say?
“They’ve played well, whether they’re No. 1 or not. But I congratulated them, because it has been 35 [years]. It’s been a while. Does it mean anything? We just want to keep playing good ball now, and we’re in a race right now. Anytime you get a win on the road, we say, it’s a birdie. So we got another birdie, and we’ll take that.”
The Sunshine State has not been kind to the Cavaliers over the years, but in a span of seven days they won at Florida State (17-8, 6-7) and at Miami (18-7, 7-6).
“Those are definitely hard places to play,” said Wilkins, who totaled six points, five rebounds, three assists and one steal Tuesday night.
In Coral Gables, Guy scored 13 points, but the biggest story was Hunter’s performance. He was 3 for 6 from 3-point range, 8 for 16 overall from the floor, and 3 for 3 from the line. He scored with his left hand, his right hand, on jumpers, and on a dunk.
“That dude’s nice, right?” Wilkins said with a broad smile.
Hunter played a leading role in a pivotal sequence in the second half. It started when he poked the ball away from Walker. Hunter then dived on the floor and forced a jump ball on which possession went to Virginia.
Moments later, Hunter knocked down a 3-pointer from the right wing, and the Cavaliers led 43-34 with 8:03 to play.
“To see that kind of effort … I thought that ignited us,” said Bennett, who before the game had challenged his players to be “first to the floor, first to the glass.”
Hunter buried his final 3-pointer, on an assist by Jerome, despite getting fouled on the shot. As the ball dropped through the net, Hunter flashed a grin.
He smiled, Hunter explained later, “because Ty at halftime told me I was messing up his assists [by missing shots]. So I just tried to make as many shots as possible for him.”
Freshman guard Chris Lykes, a former Virginia recruiting target, led the Hurricanes with 19 points.
The 5-7 Lykes, often a blur on the court, scored six of his points in the final two minutes, after the outcome had effectively been decided. Reserve guard Nigel Johnson contributed to the Cavaliers’ defensive effort against Lykes.
“I just tried to use my quickness against his,” the 6-0 Johnson said. “He’s lightning fast, so it was kind of tough for everybody all night. It definitely wasn’t easy, but I just tried to go out there and use the quickness and speed I have, and my length over him, because he’s pretty small, so I just tried to use that to my advantage and make it hard for him.”
Johnson, who grew up in Northern Virginia, transferred to UVA after graduating from Rutgers last summer, in large part because he wanted to play on an NCAA tournament team.
“It’s crazy,” Johnson said of the Cavaliers’ success. “I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it was going to be this good. To be [ranked] No. 1, I can’t even put it into words.”
Virginia, which led 27-16 at the break, scored only two points in the first 5:50 of the second half, during which the ‘Canes cut their deficit to three. But then Hunter scored on a drive and 6-9 redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite hit a jump hook, restoring some rhythm to the Cavaliers’ offense.
“There were stretches of really nice basketball,” Bennett said, “and then there were a couple stretches that drive coaches crazy — like, why all of the sudden are we losing our way? But for the most part [UVA’s players] responded.”
THEY SAID IT: With the win, the Cavaliers clinched one of the top four seeds, and a double bye, in next month’s ACC tournament. Among the postgame comments:
* Bennett: “We’re not a knockout-punch team. We’re just going to have to chip away and keep being there defensively and offensively, and hopefully [that] takes its toll over the course of the game.”
* Hunter: “Definitely being ranked No. 1 is a great feeling, but it’s just a number. We just have to keep playing.”
* Bennett on UVA’s defense against Walker, who torched Louisville for 25 points last month: “We always had somebody in front of him, and that over the course of the game can wear on you a bit.”
* Wilkins on what he’s told his younger teammates about UVA’s No. 1 ranking: “To enjoy it for what it is and get ready to play. I think that we worked hard and we gotta keep working hard. I don’t think No. 1 on the charts [during the regular season] was the end goal. Accept it, it’s cool, but it’s time to play.”
* Miami head coach Jim LarraÃƒÆ’Â±aga, a former UVA assistant: “That was an interesting game from my point of view. When you play the No. 1 team in the country, it’s very likely that the players will be fired up, full of energy and really wanting to compete at a high level. The complication with that is that it can also speed them up and get their minds going faster, and it’s hard to calm down and make a simple play.”
* Lykes on the Cavaliers’ defense: “They’re really disciplined. I think that’s the best word I can use for them. They help each other well, too. Help defense is, I think, a big part of their team.”
WHAT’S NEXT? The Cavaliers have four regular-season games remaining: two at home and two on the road. That stretch starts next Wednesday night, when UVA meets Georgia Tech at JPJ.
After taking on the Yellow Jackets, whom they defeated 64-48 in Atlanta last month, the ‘Hoos will play at Pitt (8-19, 0-14) on Feb. 24 and at Louisville (18-8, 8-5) on March 1. UVA defeated Louisville 74-64 last month.
Virginia closes the regular season March 3 against Notre Dame (15-11, 5-8) at JPJ. That will be the final home game for Wilkins, Hall and Johnson.
The Notre Dame game is sold out. A limited number of tickets can be purchased for the Georgia Tech game. For information, click here.