By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– In his University of Virginia debut, point guard Kihei Clark wasted no time establishing himself as a fan favorite at John Paul Jones Arena.
A minute after entering the game, the 5-9 freshman from Los Angeles hit a floater that delighted the crowd of 13,807. Later in the first half, Clark collected assists on back-to-back 3-pointers, the first by junior guard Ty Jerome and the second by junior forward Braxton Key.
When Clark left the game for the last time Tuesday night, with 2:35 remaining, UVA fans saluted him with a warm ovation, and their enthusiasm was understandable.
In his 24-plus minutes off the bench, Clark totaled a game-high six assists to help the fifth-ranked Cavaliers pull away for a 73-42 victory over the Tigers.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Clark said. “It was crazy. It was a great atmosphere. I loved it.”
He focused, Clark said, on “being a pass-first point guard and looking to get my guys involved. When you’ve got people around you like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome shooting the ball like that, it makes my job easy.”
Guy, a 6-2 junior who was a third-team All-American last season, was uncharacteristically cold Tuesday, making only 1 of 5 shots from 3-point range. But Jerome, a 6-5 junior, was 6 for 9 from beyond the arc and led all scorers with 20 points.
“He just has that innate feel of when to kind of seize the game,” Towson head coach Pat Skerry said.
Jerome made the All-ACC third team in 2017-18, when he was the Cavaliers’ primary ballhandler and helped them sweep the conference’s regular-season and tournament titles. With the arrival of Clark, Virginia can use Jerome, who has almost unlimited shooting range, off the ball more.
“He’s super quick, and I think what separates him is he really has a great feel for the game, too,” Jerome said of Clark. “So when you mix those two things together, he really can control the game. It’s awesome to play with him and it’s awesome to watch him when I’m not in the game and he’s in the game. He’ll be a really big piece for us this year.”
The opener also marked the UVA debut of the 6-8, 225-pound Key, a transfer from Alabama whom the NCAA granted immediate eligibility this season. He contributed seven points, nine rebounds, one assists, one steal and one blocked shot in 29 minutes.
Key probably would have played more had he not taken a blow to the nose in the second half. That opened a gash that required treatment by athletic trainer Ethan Saliba.
“It’s a battle wound,” Key said, smiling.
Head coach Tony Bennett, whose parents attended the game, started Key, Guy, Jerome, 6-10 fifth-year senior Jack Salt and 6-7 redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter. Salt played only 14 minutes and 47 seconds, much less than UVA’s other starters in a game in which Bennett often opted to use smaller lineups.
“This is a mobile team with some size, and I haven’t had that, and I think that’s a strength of ours,” said Bennett, who’s in his 10thseason at Virginia. “I like the versatility of this team.”
Skerry said: “That caught us off guard a little bit, that they went small.”
Hunter, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2017-18, suffered a season-ending injury in the ACC tournament and missed Virginia’s first-round game in the NCAA tourney, a stunning loss to UMBC.
Against Towson, he scored 13 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.
“Just being back out there with the team, it was really fun,” Hunter said. “Me and Braxton, we play really well together. He’s very versatile, and when we’re on the court I feel like we do good things for our defense.”
TURNING POINT: A stickback by Towson’s Dennis Tunstall, who finished with a game-high five offensive rebounds, cut UVA’s lead to nine (42-33) with 12:23 to play. The Cavaliers answered with a 15-1 run that included two 3-pointers by Jerome and Guy’s lone trey.
“We appreciate Ty Jerome throwing a bunch of daggers in there to really give them some separation,” Skerry said, tongue in cheek.
Bennett said: “You want your defense to ignite your defense, but sometimes your offense ignites your defense.”
ALL IN: Everyone who was in uniform played for the Cavaliers, including student-manager Grant Kersey, a former standout at Albemarle High School. Key played two seasons at Alabama, but for Kersey, Clark and freshmen Kody Stattmann and Jayden Nixon, this was their first college game.
“I said, ‘Be courageous, even if you’re trembling a little bit,’ ” Bennett told reporters. “But I loved it. And so that was a great joy for me to see that, and I’m glad they got to get in.”
THEY SAID IT: In separate sessions, Bennett, Skerry, Jerome, Hunter, Key and Clark fielded questions after the game. Among their comments:
* Bennett: “The more ballhandlers you can have on the floor, and decision-makers and playmakers, the better at times.”
* Skerry on his team’s free-throw shooting (12 of 27): “Tonight was a disaster at the foul line.”
* More Skerry: “I love guys like Salt. He’s built like a super hero.”
* Hunter on his work on the boards: “Most of my rebounds came from my own misses. That was helping me pad my stats a bit.”
* Clark on his UVA debut: “It’s a dream. It’s really a dream being able to come in and compete right away.”
* Bennett on playing Key and Hunter together: “I think they’re similar in versatility or mobility, but they’re different in their games. You just want good players on the floor, and I think they’re both really good players.”
* Jerome on Key and Hunter: “It gives us two guys that can do everything. They’re both physical, they’re both versatile, they both can rebound. It helps our defense, too, because they both can guard 1 through 5, almost.”
* Key on receiving immediate eligibility at UVA: “It’s a blessing. I wasn’t expecting to play this season, and I am grateful that I am playing and I’m going to take every opportunity that I have.”
* Key on the atmosphere at JPJ: “The fans get really hyped. I took a charge, and you’d have thought I’d dunked on somebody. The fans are great here. We love the support. We hope they come out Sunday. It’s a big game for us.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Virginia (1-0) hosts George Washington (0-1) at 2 p.m. Sunday at JPJ.
In its season opener Tuesday night, GW bolted to a 22-0 lead over Stony Brook but ended up losing 77-74 in overtime at the Smith Center in Washington, D.C.
The Colonials host Siena on Thursday night.
UVA has won seven of its past eight games against GW.