By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When it arrives in Brooklyn, New York, for the ACC tournament early next month, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team will do so as the No. 1 seed.
That became official Tuesday night, when the top-ranked Cavaliers defeated Georgia Tech 65-54 at John Paul Jones Arena to clinch at least a share of the ACC’s regular-season season crown.
“It’s definitely a good step in the right direction for what we want to do this year,” sophomore point guard Ty Jerome said. “We just can’t get complacent because we have so much more to go — hopefully at least 10, 11, 12 more games.”
For the Wahoos (25-2 overall, 14-1 ACC), a victory in one of the three games they’ll play before leaving for Brooklyn — or a loss by Duke (23-5, 11-4) — would assure them of their third outright regular-season crown in five years.
UVA owns the tiebreaker with the Blue Devils, having defeated them Jan. 27 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In Brooklyn, Virginia’s first game will be the noon quarterfinal March 8 at Barclays Center.
“Very thankful,” said Tony Bennett, who’s in his ninth season as Virginia’s head coach, said when asked about his team’s latest feat.
What the ‘Hoos, who came into the season unranked, have accomplished is not “lost on me or all the players that I’ve been blessed to coach,” Bennett said. “This group, I told them, ‘You’re trying to do something special, and it’s not going to be handed to you.’ ”
For the Cavaliers, this was their first home game as the top-ranked team in The Associated Press poll since Dec. 4, 1982. In Atlanta last month, Virginia led Georgia Tech by nine at the half and pulled away for a 64-48 victory.
The rematch proved more challenging for UVA, even though injuries have left the Yellow Jackets (11-17, 4-11) short-handed.
“Credit to Georgia Tech, how physical they were and how they came out,” Bennett said. “They ran their stuff hard, and we were not great tonight … We had to kind of earn it and outlast them, and then to get that [No. 1 seed] is good, real good for these guys.”
In Atlanta, senior center Ben Lammers was 1 for 5 from the floor (2 for 4 from line), turned the ball over five times, and scored only four points for the Jackets.
In Charlottesville, the 6-10 Lammers posted game highs of 22 points — by far his most in an ACC game this season — and seven rebounds. He hit 9 of 15 shots from the floor and consistently made smart passes when double-teamed in the post.
“He played amazing tonight,” UVA center Jack Salt said.
Senior guard Tadric Jackson (15 points) also had his moments for Georgia Tech, which trailed by only one at halftime. But the Cavaliers held sophomore guard Josh Okogie, who came in averaging 18.6 ppg, to seven points, and eventually took control of the game. Jerome scored 13 points in the final 11:10 to help Virginia improve to 15-1 at JPJ this season.
“Ty Jerome hit some great shots, hit some tough shots,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said.
Such shots have become Jerome’s trademark this season, but he suffered a thumb injury in practice a couple weeks ago, after which his shooting percentage plummeted. Jerome played with his thumb wrapped against Virginia Tech and Miami and was 1 for 12 from 3-point range in those games.
An extended break gave Jerome time to heal, and he practiced Tuesday without his thumb unencumbered. Against the Jackets, Jerome hit 4 of 6 shots from beyond the arc and finished with 18 points. He also had five assists and two steals.
“It’s just about making the right play,” Jerome said. “When the shot presents itself, I’m going to shoot, and when help comes, I’ll [pass]. It’s about making the right play and staying in attack mode and being aggressive.”
“It was good to see those guys finish and make some good plays,” Bennett said.
Senior forward Isaiah Wilkins was 3 for 3 from the floor, and Salt was 3 for 6. Redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter, who splits his time between small forward and power forward, scored nine points off the bench.
Perhaps the most surprising contribution, though, came from Mamadi Diakite. The 6-9 redshirt sophomore made all four of his field-goal attempts and scored nine points. Equally important, Diakite played solid man-to-man defense against Lammers.
“He brought a lot of energy, offensively and defensively, and I’m just happy for him,” Hunter said.
Asked about Diakite, Pastner said, “I thought he was the most active of their bigs. I thought he played really well. He was their best defensively in this game, and I thought offensively he hurt us in the post.”
Diakite is one of the Cavaliers’ most gifted athletes, but he’s been prone to defensive lapses. And so his minutes have fluctuated from game to game.
“With Coach Bennett, everything starts with the defense,” Diakite said. “He knows what I can do defensively and offensively, so he has a high standard for me. He thinks I can do it to a certain level. I think I understand now, but I didn’t understand at first, so that’s what I’m getting [used] to.”
Diakite and UVA’s other underclassmen can look forward to many more nights at JPJ. For the team’s seniors — Wilkins, Hall and reserve guard Nigel Johnson — this was their penultimate home game.
“It’s crazy, huh?” Wilkins said after totaling seven points, five rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot and one steal.
“I’m going to think about that now and try not to take anything for granted. I don’t think I’ve done that up to this point — take anything for granted, that is — but it’s crazy.”
Johnson transferred to UVA from Rutgers last summer. Hall, however, has been in Bennett’s program for five years and Wilkins for four.
“Devon might come back for another year,” Wilkins said with a smile at the postgame press conference.
THEY SAID IT: Virginia reached the 25-win mark for the fourth time under Bennett on Tuesday night. Highlights from the postgame interviews:
* Bennett on his message to his players as postseason nears: “The rankings, the seeding, what [media members] say, social media, that’s insignificant. I tell them: Don’t overcomplicate this. Be about improvement, playing to win, and then preparing the right way, and then we’ll see how far we can take this … Concentrate on the process, and then good things happen after that. Those are the fruits of your labor.”
* Salt on UVA’s latest ACC regular-season title: “That’s definitely a credit to the coaches and the players. You try not to think about it, but it’s there and it’s a great accomplishment. We’re definitely proud and happy.”
* Hunter on the Cavaliers’ feat: “It’s a good feeling. At the beginning of the season, it’s one of our goals, and we can check it off our list.”
* Wilkins: “I think that we’re playing good team ball. After each game, there’s obviously areas to clean up, but I think we believe in each other and we’re confident, and we’ll see where we go.”
* Guy on the Cavaliers’ next target: “Same goal that it was at the beginning of the season — cut down the nets in Brooklyn and [at the Final Four] in San Antonio.”
* Pastner: “To win against the No. 1 team in the county on the road, you can’t afford to miss some of those short shots that we missed.”
WHAT’S NEXT? The Cavaliers have three regular-season games remaining: one at home and two on the road. This stretch starts Saturday, when UVA visits Pittsburgh (8-21, 0-16), the ACC’s last-place team.
ESPNU will the televise the 4 p.m. game.
Last season, the ‘Hoos took two of three from Pitt. UVA lost in overtime to the Panthers in Pittsburgh and defeated them at JPJ and at the ACC tourney in Brooklyn.
Virginia plays at Louisville (18-10, 8-7) next Thursday night. The Cavaliers beat the Cardinals 74-64 at JPJ on Jan. 31. Louisville lost at No. 5 Duke late Wednesday night.
UVA closes the regular season March 3 against Notre Dame (16-12, 6-9) at JPJ. The game is sold out.