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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE– With a commanding halftime lead, a basketball team often loses some of the intensity and focus that allowed it to be so dominant. So it was for fifth-ranked Virginia in its 76-57 victory over George Washington on Sunday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
The winless Colonials, who trailed 42-17 at the break, never seriously threatened UVA in the second half of this non-conference game. Even so, the Cavaliers’ head coach, Tony Bennett, was less than thrilled with his team’s performance in the final 20 minutes.
“I thought we played well in the first half,” Bennett said, “and I thought they outplayed us in the second half. They really did. They got open looks, we were sluggish, a little loose with the ball, and just got outplayed.”
In a game in which 43 fouls were called, GW (0-3) shot 56.5 percent from the floor after intermission. The Wahoos led the nation in scoring defense last season, and rarely during Bennett’s tenure has an opponent scored 40 points in a half against one of his teams.
“That’s hard to do,” GW head coach Maurice Joseph said. “That’s really hard to do.”
The Cavaliers (2-0) shot better than 50 percent from the floor in each half. Their defense was markedly tougher in the first half, though, than in the second. GW scored the first eight points of the second half, at which point Bennett called a timeout.
“It was discouraging to get kind of out-competed and out-worked,” he said. 
At the offensive end, Virginia encountered little resistance. Junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy each scored 20 points and were a combined 8 for 13 from beyond the arc. They also had six rebounds apiece to lead the ‘Hoos.
Redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, who played only five minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, finished with 10 points and four rebounds, and redshirt junior forward Mamadi Diakite contributed 10 points, three boards and two blocked shots in 17 minutes off the bench.
Two of Diakite points came off an emphatic dunk set up by junior forward Braxton Key’s slick behind-the-back pass. A transfer from Alabama, Key totaled five points, three rebounds, three steals and one assist in his second straight start for UVA.
His first start came Tuesday night at JPJ, where Virginia opened the season with a 73-42 win over Towson. In that game, the 6-8 Key had seven points, nine rebounds, one assist, one block and one steal, but the 6-9 Diakite contributed only two points and two rebounds.
For a post player of whom much is expected, it was a disappointing start to the season.
“I went back and looked at the tape, and there were a lot of things that I could have done better that I didn’t [against Towson],” Diakite said Sunday afternoon. “This game I was able to change that.”
Guy, a third-team All-American last season, attempted only six shots in the opener and was 1 for 5 from 3-point range. Against GW, he was 4 for 8 from beyond the arc and 8 for 15 overall.
“I think I had a lot more confidence today than I did the first game,” Guy said. “I can’t really explain why. Guys like Ty tell me to just keep shooting, and they keep feeding me, so some of them are bound to go in.”
Bennett’s message?
“He just wants me to stay aggressive, and I try to do that,” Guy said. “I didn’t want to force anything the first game. It’s a new team, a new year, and I just wanted to feel my way into it, and I think I’ve found a groove already.”
For the 6-5 Jerome, it was his second straight 20-point game, but he’s much more than a scorer. Against George Washington, Jerome also had seven assists and four steals, both game highs, along with his six rebounds
“He’s worked so hard on his game and his outside shooting and his body, all those things,” Bennett said. “He’s played two real good games, and I think offensively he seems to be assertive with the ability to find guys.”
DREAM COME TRUE: Grant Kersey, who as a freshman in 2016-17 joined Bennett’s program as a student-manager, made his debut as a college player against Towson. He didn’t score that night, but against GW the former Albemarle High standout calmly knocked down two free throws with 43.8 seconds left, to the delight of the crowd at JPJ.
On Virginia’s final possession, the coaching staff instructed the players to not shoot. After dribbling out most of the shot clock, Kersey passed the ball to teammate Jayden Nixon and thus avoided adding a turnover to his stat line.
“I was actually impressed with that crafty move at the end,” Bennett said, laughing.
Kersey is still one of Virginia’s managers, a group Bennett holds in the highest esteem. They “just give, give, give,” Bennett said. “So [it’s great] when you can reward that, and he’s worked hard, and he’s a pretty good player.
“He’s a joy to have out there, and to see him knock down those two free throws with no problem and then slide the ball off so he didn’t get the turnover … well done.”
Kersey, who rooms with Guy, is a former ball boy at UVA basketball games.
“I remember being a ball kid and being able to just shoot on the court before the game,” Kersey said, “and I thought that it was the coolest thing ever. And so to now be under the lights with the team, Coach, everything, I’m just trying to take it in and enjoy it.”
THEY SAID IT: After Bennett and Joseph held their press conferences, Jerome, Guy, Hunter, Diakite and Kersey fielded questions from reporters. Among the postgame comments:
* Joseph: “I’m disappointed we lost, but there are a lot of things that I was encouraged about from this game that we hope to take back and build off of.” 
* Bennett: “I thought our first half was good. We were sharp, made it hard for [GW] to get good looks in the first half, for the most part ran our offense, touched the paint. Obviously when guys make those shots, when Kyle gets rolling and Ty, some good things happen.”
* Bennett: This team has to keep working. It doesn’t have the luxury of taking it easy and cruising, because that won’t cut it as the competition goes up. And [UVA’s lackluster second-half effort] raised the antenna.”
* Bennett on Guy’s assertiveness on offense: “I thought he was in a better place in terms of how he was looking to get set up and get his looks or his shots in this game than the first game … I think teams will certainly try to lock onto Kyle and Ty, and the other guys will have to make some adjustments, but I always want Kyle looking aggressively for his shots.”
* Bennett on fifth-year senior Jack Salt, UVA’s starting center: “I just know his spirit and his tenacity are something that this team needs from a physical standpoint, and he provides that.”
* Jerome on Kersey: “First of all, off the court, he’s a great kid and a great guy. He’s one of my closest friends. So seeing him score his first collegiate points, or just seeing him suiting up in the game, is amazing. He’s a real hard worker, he’s a real servant. He does whatever we need, and for him to get rewarded like that is awesome.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The Cavaliers don’t play again until Friday night, when Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference member Coppin State (0-2) visits JPJ for a 7 o’clock game.
Coppin State, whose campus is in Baltimore, plays Wednesday night at nearby Navy.
The Cavaliers and the Eagles have met only once in men’s basketball. On Dec. 9, 1993. UVA edged Coppin State 63-61 at University Hall.