By Jeff White (email@example.com)
COLLEGE PARK, Md.– Maryland fans raised the chant before the game, when an upset was still a possibility, and again in the final seconds, when all hope was gone and they had nothing to cheer:
“We knew that that was going to happen,” Virginia redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter said Wednesday night at Maryland’s Xfinity Center. “We were prepared for it.”
Hunter smiled. “If they want to chant another team’s name while we’re winning, I guess that’s the best they can do.”
UVA’s historic 2017-18 season ended, as anyone who follows college basketball knows, with a shocking loss to No. 16 seed UMBC in the NCAA tournament’s first round. But this is a new season. The Cavaliers again rank among the nation’s elite, as they showed Wednesday night in their first road test of the season.
In a nationally televised ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, No. 4 Virginia defeated No. 24 Maryland 76-71 before a sellout crowd of 17,950. Five players scored in double figures for UVA (7-0), including fifth-year senior Jack Salt, who finished with a career-high 12 points.
The win was the Wahoos’ eight in their past nine meetings with the Terrapins.
“We lost to a great team tonight that played at a high level,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said.
These schools no longer play each other in basketball twice every season, as they did when Maryland was a member of the ACC. This was their first meeting since Dec. 3, 2014, in fact, and UVA’s players aren’t especially well-versed in the rivalry.
Even so, they could tell during warmups that this was not a typical non-conference game. The Terrapins made it a “blackout” for which students dressed accordingly.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” Virginia freshman point guard Kihei Clark said. “If you’re a basketball player, I don’t know how you can’t love something like that.”
The Cavaliers, who went into halftime ahead by nine, stretched their lead to 48-31 on a Salt tip-in with 16:42 to play. The Terrapins (6-1), unfazed by Virginia’s Pack Line defense, battled back and twice cut their deficit to four in the final 4:30. Each time Virginia responded: first with a Salt follow dunk that made it 63-57, and then with a Ty Jerome 3-pointer that made it 66-59 with 2:48 left.
“We do a really good job of never really worrying or wavering from our ways,” junior guard Kyle Guy said, “so there was never any panic or anything like that. We just knew what we had to do to pull away a little bit more.”
Guy was 5 for 9 from beyond the arc and led all scorers with 18 points. Jerome, a 6-5 junior guard, added 17 points. The 6-7 Hunter had 15 points, five rebounds and four assists, and 6-8 junior Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama, contributed 10 points and two steals off the bench.
And then there was the 6-10, 250-pound Salt, who came in with modest averages of 3.0 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
“Jack was dunking, setting screens, playing defense,” Jerome said. “He was the MVP.”
Matched against 6-10, 240-pound sophomore Bruno Fernardo, who’s projected to be a first-round NBA draft pick, Salt totaled 12 points, seven rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot, and one steal Wednesday night. He was 6 for 7 from the floor, with four dunks.
“I’m just so happy for him,” Guy said. “We were joking [before the game] about how his career high is only 10 and he hasn’t dunked at all this year, and he put us all to bed tonight.”
Fernando finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks and wowed the crowd with his athleticism. But his eagerness to challenge shooters in the lane created opportunities for Salt, who’s known more for his bone-rattling screens than his scoring.
“Bruno’s such a good shot-blocker,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “He’s so athletic, and he goes after stuff. So when shot-blockers go after it, if you can get it on the rim, there’s going to be open lanes or alleys to the glass, and Jack was all over there.”
For the game, Maryland shot 54 percent from the floor, a statistic that didn’t thrill Bennett. But he loved his team’s ball security. UVA tied the program record for fewest turnovers in a game (two). Each came on an offensive foul.
“We took care of the ball,” Bennett said. “I don’t want to minimize that, because [the Terps] can get out and run. And our ability to only have two turnovers and not give them any loose-ball or live-ball turnovers, I think, was a big storyline.”
BATTLE-TESTED:Against Maryland, Bennett started a fifth-year senior (Salt), two juniors (Jerome and Guy) and a redshirt sophomore (Hunter) alongside Clark.
“This is only my second year, but I kind of have experience,” Hunter said. “Ty has been playing for three years, Kyle’s been playing for three years. Jack’s been here for 10 years, so we just have experience, and they just know how to calm down when [the game] gets a little tight.”
Bennett said: “I think that’s our formula. It always has been: to get guys and get them to their upperclassman years. There’s no substitute for playing in the games that Ty and Kyle and De’Andre and Jack have played in.”
ROAD WARRIORS:Jerome and Guy love playing at John Paul Jones Arena, where the Cavaliers have built a formidable home-court advantage, but they relish road games, too.
“There’s nothing more fun in basketball than quieting a hostile environment on the road,” said Jerome, a 6-5 junior guard. “It’s one of the most exhilarating feelings in sports.”
Guy said: “I definitely thrive off getting heckled. Every stadium is going to be loud, especially if we’re ranked high and continue to play good basketball, but when they start to come at me personally is when I really like to turn it on.”
Maryland freshman guard Eric Ayala noticed.
“[Guy] and Jerome, they’re some confident guys,” Ayala said. “There’s not really a shot that they don’t like, and their coach trusts them to make plays at the end of the day, and that’s what they did. A lot of respect to those guys and the work they put in; they’re a number-four team in the country for a reason. Those guys are running that show, so a lot of respect to them.”
THEY SAID IT: Bennett, Turgeon and several players from both teams were available for interviews after the game. Among the noteworthy comments:
* Bennett: “I was really happy for Jack and Kihei and Braxton. I thought they gave us good lifts down the stretch.”
* Guy on the Terps’ 54-percent shooting percentage: “I don’t think our defense was all that bad. I think they ran some really good sets … We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it was a good win.”
* Clark on playing with Jerome and Guy: “I just follow in their footsteps. They’re teaching me along the way. It was great to see those guys make shots early in the first half. We just feed off their energy, and it ignites our defense.”
* Jerome on the last of his three treys, a dagger that made it a seven-point game: “The clock was winding down. I had to make a play. I came off a screen — Jack set a great screen — and I had some space, so I just shot it.”
* Salt on facing two of the nation’s top post players, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Fernando, in back-to-back games: “Both are great bigs, and traditional back-to-the-basket bigs. You don’t see that very often today. So I took it as a challenge for myself, just to try to stay disciplined, stay physical and not give them anything easy at the rim.”
* Ayala on the Cavaliers’ experience: “You can tell. I think they had two turnovers. That was probably the big difference. Their pace was their pace, they don’t let anyone speed them up.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The Cavaliers don’t play again until Monday night, when Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference member Morgan State (2-4) visits JPJ for a 7 o’clock game. A limited number of tickets are available, and they can be purchased here.
UVA has a 3-0 lead in its series with Morgan State, which is in Baltimore.