March 2, 2018

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By Jeff White (

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A last-second blunder by Louisville gave the top-ranked University of Virginia men’s basketball team one last chance Thursday night, and crazy things sometimes happen in such situations. Even so, as UVA guard Ty Jerome followed the flight of the ball after it left teammate De’Andre Hunter’s hands, he momentarily lost hope.

“That looked so far left,” Jerome recalled, smiling. “I was like, ‘Ah, man, Dre, hit the rim at least.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh!’ ”

With nine-tenths of a second showing on the clock, the Cardinals had possession and a 66-64 lead. But on the verge of a victory that almost certainly would have locked up an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for them, they self-destructed. Louisville junior forward Deng Adel was called for a violation when he ran along the baseline while trying to inbound the ball.

The Wahoos made the most of their reprieve. From the baseline next to UVA’s basket, Jerome surveyed his options and then spotted Hunter open on the deep left wing.

No. 12 caught Jerome’s inbounds pass and didn’t hesitate. A 6-7 redshirt freshman from Philadelphia, Hunter launched a 3-pointer that glanced off the backboard and into the hoop to give Virginia its only lead of the final 35 minutes and, more important, a 67-66 victory.

“It was a prayer,” David Padgett, Louisville’s interim head coach, said during his subdued press conference. “It was a prayer from 30 feet.”

Hunter said: “I knew it was hitting the backboard. I didn’t know if it was going in, though.”

His shot set off a frenzied celebration. His teammates swarmed over him on the court in front of Louisville’s bench, and at the bottom of the dogpile Hunter couldn’t breathe. That was a small price to pay for such an indelible moment.

“That was my first game-winner ever,” said Hunter, who finished with seven points. “It’s crazy.”

His shot silenced the crowd of 19,413 at the KFC Yum! Center and stunned the Cardinals (19-11 overall, 9-8 ACC), who outplayed the Cavaliers for much of the night.

When it mattered most, however, the ‘Hoos (27-2, 16-1) came through and found a way to extend their winning streak over Louisville to six games. They scored five points in the final 0.9 seconds, the first two coming on free throws by Jerome, who’d been fouled attempting a trey from the right wing.

“That was the toughest loss I’ve ever had,” Padgett said.

The emotions in the other locker room were much different, as Virginia head coach Tony Bennett acknowledged.

“I’m so thankful and excited and happy about how our guys showed resilience and finished,” Bennett said, “but I also feel some pain, or some compassion, for [the Cardinals] … They played so hard and they played well.”

With 4:20 to play, Louisville led 56-46. Virginia rallied to tie the game at 58-58, but the Cards struck back and led 64-59 with 10 seconds remaining.

The outcome was not settled. Jerome, who scored 11 of his game-high 21 points in the final 3:07, dribbled out to the right wing for a contested trey that made it 64-62 with 6.3 seconds left.

Unable to come up with a steal, UVA fouled reserve guard Darius Perry, whose two free throws pushed Louisville’s lead to 66-62 with 5.8 seconds to play. The Cards then foolishly challenged Jerome’s 3-point attempt, giving him three free throws with ninth-tenths of a second left.

After Jerome made the first two free throws, Bennett inserted 6-9 Mamadi Diakite and 7-1 Jay Huff into the game, hoping one of them might tip in the ball after Jerome intentionally missed his third free throw. But a lane violation gave the ball back to Louisville, setting the stage for the most improbable of endings.

“I’ll never forget this,” said Virginia senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, who finished with seven points, seven rebounds and a game-high three blocked shots despite playing the final 14:38 with an injured right thumb.

With 11 minutes to play, Virginia trailed by 13. Asked what he told his players during the Cavaliers’ rally, Bennett said, “Just get a stop and a score, a stop and a score.”

The ‘Hoos had already clinched the ACC’s regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament in Brooklyn, New York. With the win over Louisville, they earned another distinction, becoming the first team in ACC history to go 9-0 on the road in league games.

“We’ve got some warriors on our team,” said fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall, who totaled 10 points, nine rebounds four assists and one steal.

“It shows our toughness to be able to fight back like that and be able to finish down the stretch. We had a bunch of lapses. I don’t think we played well tonight on the defensive end at all. Even on the offensive end, I don’t think we played as well as we could have or as we should have. But coming up big down the stretch is big for us.”

The Cavaliers’ road record, Jerome said, is a “testament to our fight and our resilience, never giving up, honestly.”

The ‘Hoos have won this season at, among other venues, Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum, Syracuse’s Carrier Dome, Florida State’s Donald L. Tucker Center, Miami’s Watsco Center and, for the first time since 1995, at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

For sheer drama, though, those victories could not match the win UVA captured Thursday night in an arena where the volume seemed to increase with every Louisville basket.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Hall said.

The comeback was reminiscent of the one UVA staged on Jan. 26, 2016, at Wake Forest’s Lawrence Joel Coliseum.

With 1:23 to play in that game, the 11th-ranked Cavaliers trailed Wake 64-54, but they scored 18 points in the final 1:16 to win 72-71. UVA’s final three points came on an off-balance 21-footer by guard Darius Thompson, whose shot beat the buzzer and floored the Demon Deacons.

“I just thought about that in [the locker room],” Wilkins said. “I think I’ll take this one more.”

Nothing came easily Thursday night for the Cavaliers, who’d looked much sharper Jan. 31 in a 74-64 win over the Cardinals at JPJ.

In that game, sophomore guard Kyle Guy led UVA with 22 points. In the rematch, Louisville alternated the 6-7 Adel and 6-6 V.J. King on the 6-2 Guy, who didn’t attempt a shot until more than six minutes had passed.

Guy came to Louisville having made at least one 3-pointer in 28 consecutive games. That streak ended Thursday night, but he scored six of his 10 points in the final 8:50 to help keep Virginia in contention.

On the game’s final play, the Cardinals knew UVA’s primary option would be Guy, and he was unable to shake free. But that opened up other options for the Cavaliers. Wilkins, after observing Louisville’s defense, told Hunter “to step back. But I didn’t hit the shot or nothing like that. I just told him to back up, and he did all the hard work.”

Hunter rolled his right ankle in practice Wednesday afternoon at JPJ, and he wore a protective boot on his foot after the game. Virginia’s head athletic trainer, Ethan Saliba, had also treated Hunter’s right wrist and right knee.

“I’m pretty beat up right now,” Hunter said, “but I can still play, so I can’t complain.”

THEY SAID IT: With their 10th straight ACC road win, the Cavaliers extended their program record. Among the postgame comments at the KFC Yum! Center:

* Bennett on Jerome’s clutch play down the stretch: “He kind of makes things go, and he was aggressive. Obviously, he had a big second half, and he’s done that on more than one occasion for us late in games and in second halves.”

* Jerome on the lapse by Adel, who led the Cardinals with 18 points: “To be honest, I just hope he’s not getting too much heat from people, because he’s a heck of a player and he had a hell of a game.”

* Wilkins on the final play: “We practice a lot of late-game shots. I know that sounds crazy, but we kept fighting, and I was really proud of that.”

* Bennett on UVA’s offensive breakdowns: “I was more concerned or disappointed that we weren’t putting up a better fight defensively. I can always live with tough, contested shots made [by opponents], but I didn’t feel we were doing that consistently enough to be in that game.”

* Padgett on what he told his players afterward: “That I love them and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Virginia’s regular-season finale is Saturday at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena. At 4 p.m., UVA meets Notre Dame (18-12, 8-9), which recently welcomed back All-ACC big man Bonzie Colson from an injury.

In a Senior Day ceremony before the game, UVA will honor three student-managers (Will Gent, Austin Nelson and Sydney Stokes) and three players (Hall, Wilkins and Nigel Johnson). The ceremony will begin around 3:40 p.m.

Johnson transferred to UVA last summer after graduating from Rutgers. Hall has been in the program for five years, Wilkins for four.

“They started out as role players,” Bennett said, “and just kind of every step they got better, earned more and more. They are so bought-in. They’re owners in this house, and it matters so much to them. And they hold guys accountable, and they encourage [their teammates]. I couldn’t ask for better leaders, and I’m so glad to see how it’s gone for them.”

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