(Dec. 31, 2018)
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– On New Year’s Eve, the holiday crowd at John Paul Jones Arena saved its most frenzied celebration for the final play.
That was not because walk-on guard Grant Kersey’s 3-pointer lifted the home team to victory – the outcome of this non-conference game had long since been settled – but because his trey pushed Virginia to triple figures for the first time in its 10 seasons under head coach Tony Bennett.
With fourth-ranked UVA leading Marshall by 33 points and the shot clock off Monday afternoon, Bennett would have preferred for his team to have held the ball on the game’s final possession. But with the Thundering Herd applying pressure defense, Jayden Nixon crossed midcourt and passed the ball to Kersey, who spotted his former Albemarle High School teammate Austin Katstra open in the left corner.
Katstra’s 3-point attempt missed, but Kersey, who doubles as one of the Cavaliers’ managers, grabbed the long rebound and launched an off-balance shot from beyond the arc.
It dropped through, naturally, and pandemonium ensued at JPJ. In the stands, jubilant fans roared their approval. On the court, Kersey’s teammates mobbed him.
“We wanted him to shoot it,” said junior guard Kyle Guy, who lives with Kersey.
For the Wahoos, their 100-64 victory over Marshall, which advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round last season, capped the non-conference portion of their schedule. The ‘Hoos dominated almost from the opening tip. Four players scored in double figures for UVA (12-0), led by Guy, who was virtually unstoppable.
In front of a sellout crowd that included incoming recruit Kadin Shedrick, a 6-10 post player from Raleigh, N.C., Guy hit 7 of 9 shots from 3-point range and 10 of 14 overall. His 30 points were a career high, as were his seven treys and his eight rebounds.
Guy had no complaints afterward. Still, he admitted he would not have minded posting the first double-double of his UVA career.
“I tried so hard when I went back in [in the second half] to get two more, but they weren’t bouncing my way,” he said, smiling.
Bennett has coached several other exceptional shooters, including Klay Thompson and Joe Harris, and said Guy shares some qualities with them.
“If he’s not squared up, he can kind of shift in the air and turn and then knock it in,” Bennett said.
Guy “has beautiful form,” Bennett said. “I think it’s great how it’s textbook [in the way] it comes out, and we work hard on how quick he can get his feet set and how quick he can shoot it, trying to be square. But he has that innate ability when he’s not square where he can turn and, boom, get it off. I think that’s a separator.”
A third-team All-American in 2017-18, Guy wasn’t the only Cavalier to torch the Thundering Herd (7-6).
For the game, Virginia shot 53.2 percent from the floor and held Marshall, which came to JPJ averaging 82.2 points per game, to 35.1-percent accuracy. Led by redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter, a long-armed 6-7 swingman, the Cavaliers forced the Herd’s leading scorer, guard Jon Elmore, into a subpar performance.
Elmore, a 6-3 senior who came in averaging 19.6 points per game, missed 14 of 17 shots from the floor, including 7 of 8 from beyond the arc. He finished with a team-high 14 points, but 12 came after the ‘Hoos built a 50-25 halftime lead.
“Dre is a fantastic defender,” Guy said, “and his length bothered [Elmore].”
For Bennett, the victory was his 231st with the Cavaliers and 300th as a head coach. (He was 69-33 in three seasons at Washington State.)
“It’s another good thing about today,” said UVA guard Ty Jerome, who had 14 points, four assists, three rebounds and three steals.
Asked about his feat, Bennett said, “I’m thankful … It just means you’ve had really good players. It means I’ve been coaching for a while. I’ve had a great staff. My whole hope is that in my 300 wins I’ve honored and respected the game, the people who’ve poured into my life and what I value as important, and then in the many games that I’ve lost, I’ve done the same. And that’s all I can ask for, so I’m very grateful to have been given this opportunity.”
In addition to Guy, frontcourt reserves Braxton Key and Jay Huff also grabbed eight boards for the Cavaliers, who outrebounded Marshall 45-23. For Huff, that was a career high, and he also scored a season-high 14 points and blocked two shots in his 13:07 of playing time.
Huff, a 7-1 redshirt sophomore, had played only five minutes in Virginia’s previous game, a 72-40 win over William & Mary.
“As I’ve said all along, he shows flashes,” Bennett said. “He’s got to continue to become more consistent, and sometimes that’s the best way, to be out there in those situations. He’s done some good things in practice, and this was a game where he got more extended minutes … That was good experience for him today.”
Another positive for Virginia was the play of Mamadi Diakite, a 6-9 redshirt junior who made his third straight start. Diakite played 21 minutes and totaled nine points, four rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
“He isn’t just making a hard effort and then kind of wandering around,” Bennett said. “He’s staying continuous. I think he’s simplified [things] in terms of just being as good as he can defensively and on the glass, and then taking what the game presents offensively … His athleticism and length will be important as we head into conference play.”
THEY SAID IT: After the 2018 finale at JPJ, Bennett and his Marshall counterpart, Dan D’Antoni, fielded questions from reporters, as did four UVA players: Guy, Jerome, Huff and Diakite. Among their comments:
* Bennett, smiling, on Kersey: “I think he’s uncoachable. I’m holding up my hand saying hold the ball, so we’re going to have to have him run some extra wind sprints or something.”
* Bennett, more seriously, on Kersey: “Grant, to me, represents all those guys that have been managers in our program, and the practice players, and that’s kind of cool. There’s excitement with him and what he’s done. I couldn’t be happier, because he comes from a great family. He’s a fine young man.”
* D’Antoni on his team’s performance: “Ol’ Hillbilly Ball wasn’t real good. [The Cavaliers] played extremely well. They shoot the ball really well. It’s funny, I played golf with Tony this summer. He beat me at golf too. It’s been a tough year for me with Tony.”
* Bennett on D’Antonio, a Marshall graduate whose brother, Mike, is the Houston Rockets’ head coach: “I know how much his alma mater means to him, and I love that, and he’s done a great job there. Today they were off, and they caught us on a hot day. Much respect to that family and what they’ve done for the game, and I know how much he cares about Marshall. And when people care about where they’re coaching, it shows. I care greatly about this place, as my staff does, and he loves Marshall, and that’s pretty cool.”
* Huff on his expanded role Monday: “No question that getting playing time helps, but at the same time I try to stay upbeat, even in games where I don’t. Just come back the next day, watch the guys that do play and study their games a little bit and see what they do.”
* Diakite on his recent improvement: “I’m trying to be a defender first and then let everything come to me offensively … My offensive game is not there yet. I don’t think it’s as the level where I want it to be, but I’m working on it. That’s what we’re here for.”
* Jerome on the strides he’s made defensively over the course of his UVA career: “From when I first came in here, it’s night and day. I don’t know if that’s a testament [that] I’m good at it now, or how bad I was at it when I first got here. It’s about constantly improving at it. We practice it every day in practice, so I just gotta keep working hard.”
UP NEXT: Virginia, which swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles in 2017-18, hosts ninth-ranked Florida State (11-1) on Saturday in the conference opener for both teams. ESPN2 will televise the 3 p.m. game.
The UVA-FSU series is tied 24-24. In the teams’ only meeting last season, Virginia prevailed 59-55 in Tallahassee, Fla.
In the locker room Monday, Bennett told reporters later, he reminded his players that “we always break up our season into different phases, and they went undefeated in phase one, and that’s no small thing. We wanted to try and win every game and they did that. Now we go into phase two, conference play, and we understand how good the league is … we’ll have to continue to improve.”
ACC competition “going to test you and find out where you’re at,” Bennett said, “but I liked what I saw today, and we’ll enjoy New Year’s.”