By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– Most of the fans who packed John Paul Jones Arena were in their seats well before the opening tip Saturday afternoon, and there was a noticeable buzz when the fourth-ranked Virginia men’s basketball team took the floor for its ACC opener.
“The home crowd came out right,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said, and so did his team.
Against ninth-ranked Florida State, the unbeaten Cavaliers led 42-23 at the break, thanks to a tour de force by junior guard Kyle Guy, who scored 18 of his game-high 21 points in the first half. Virginia’s lead grew to 29 points before FSU, pressing full-court, rallied in the final 2:35 against a lineup composed of reserves and walk-ons.
The Seminoles scored the game’s last 16 points but didn’t come close to catching UVA, which won 65-52 at sold-out JPJ.
“It was awesome today,” said junior guard Ty Jerome, who had a game-high six assists for Virginia (13-0 overall, 1-0 ACC). “The students are on break, but it was an amazing atmosphere.”
This is the Wahoos’ 10th season under Bennett, who improved his record in ACC openers to 10-0. His teams are renowned for their rugged man-to-man defense, and the Cavaliers’ performance against FSU (12-2, 0-1) only enhanced that reputation.
Even with their late surge, the ‘Noles shot only 34.1 percent from the floor. With 2:35 remaining, they had 34 points. They came in averaging 81.3 per game.
“We were locked in and we were ready to play defensively,” Bennett said. “Did they miss some shots? Yes. Were we perfect? No. But we said, ‘We’re going to work,’ and at halftime I said, ‘If you can, win this with your defense.’
“Offense, we’ve talked about many times, can come and go, but defensively you just have to make them shoot a contested shot and earn their shots and not give them second-chance points, and I thought we did that at a very acceptable level for us.”
The ‘Hoos, who lead the nation in scoring defense, forced two shot-clock violations, to the delight of the home fans.
“Shots come and go,” Jerome said, “but when we’re locked in defensively, we’re really tough to beat.”
FSU, which has faced such opponents as Florida, Villanova, Purdue and Connecticut this season, can attest to that.
“This is the best team we’ve played,” head coach Leonard Hamilton said of the Cavaliers. “It’s not even close. This team, with the system that they have, they’re going to be very difficult to beat.”
Guy broke the game open with back-to-back 3-pointers in the final two minutes of the first half. On the opening possession of the second half, he hit another trey, his school-record 11thstraight over a span of two games.
“Like I always say, it’s just my teammates having confidence in me and me having confidence in myself,” Guy said. “When you hit a couple in a row, Coach starts to run a couple plays for you, so that really helped.”
In a Dec. 31 rout of Marshall at JPJ, Guy made his final six shots from beyond the arc and finished with a career-best 30 points. He made his first five 3-pointers against FSU, an exhibition of marksmanship that Bennett called “a clinic.”
Guy’s teammates witness such displays regularly at JPJ.
“He does it every day in practice,” Jerome said. “It’s effortless for him, especially when he’s hot. He’s better than anybody [else] in the country when he’s hot. He’s been rolling the past two games, and we’ve got to make sure we do our job to get him the ball, so he can stay rolling for us.”
Hamilton said FSU’s coaches, studying Guy on videotape, have commented that they “don’t even know if he’s looking at the goal. Especially on some of those out-of-bounds plays, he’ll just catch it and turn around in the air and knock it in.”
That Guy was capable of putting up big numbers was no surprise for the ‘Noles. What they didn’t expect was the offensive brilliance of UVA reserve Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama who came in averaging 6.3 points per game.
Against FSU, the 6-8, 225-pound junior scored 20 points – by far his most as a Cavalier – and grabbed six rebounds. Key made 7 of 11 shots from the floor, including 2 of 5 from 3-point range.
“It felt great,” Key said. “My teammates had confidence in me and I had confidence in myself. Whenever I had an open look, I just tried to be a little more aggressive today than normal, and shots were falling for me today.”
At the offensive end, Bennett said, Key “really let the game come, took the open shots when they were there and attacked when it was there. That’s his game.
“He’s kind of a complete player who does a little bit of everything and understands how to play. I was as pleased with his defense as his offense.”
Three players average at least 14 points apiece for Virginia: Guy (15.4), redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter (14.5) and Jerome (14.2). The Seminoles focused on trying to slow down those three, Hamilton said, and that created opportunities for Key.
“Defensively, we did a decent job on [Hunter and Jerome], but he was the X-factor, I thought, today,” Hamilton said. “Every time we made a mistake on him, he made us pay, and that’s what good teams do. They always seem to have other guys that step up and make plays.”
Jerome and Hunter were a combined 4 for 19 from the floor Saturday, but Key made up for their misses. With 2:50 left, Bennett substituted for Key, whom UVA fans saluted with a standing ovation as he walked to the bench.
Key’s teammates were equally impressed by his performance.
“He’s been working his butt off in practice,” said Hunter, who finished with six points and six boards. “Today he was making shots, he was rebounding, he was getting putbacks, and that just really helped his confidence, and he just carried it through the whole game.”
Jerome said: “That was big for us. I told Braxton that his moment was coming. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of games he hasn’t played a lot. So I told him to stay ready. He works hard every day, and for him to come out and have 20 was big for us.”
FAMILIAR FACES: Among the former players in attendance Saturday as part of the men’s basketball reunion weekend were four who played for Bennett early in his tenure at UVA: Will Sherrill, Sammy Zeglinski, Solomon Tat and Calvin Baker.
“They were certainly a big part of laying the foundation of the program,” Bennett said. “Fine young men, and I was fortunate, obviously, to get this job at that time and get to coach them.”
Bennett came to UVA from Washington State after the 2008-09 season. His record with the Cavaliers is 232-86, with five straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
“To see those guys that played for you, it’s great,” Bennett said.
THEY SAID IT: The victory was the Cavaliers’ seventh over the Seminoles in their past nine meetings. Among the comments from players and coaches afterward:
* Jerome on playing in a nationally televised game (ESPN2) matching top-10 teams: “We say every game’s the same, but at the end of the day it’s human nature. You play another top-10 team, you’re starting conference play, everyone’s watching, there’s just a little extra.”
* Bennett on UVA’s 16-for-18 shooting from the line: “Games will come down to possessions, so you want to make the most [of them] … That’s refreshing. It was great to see Jack [Salt] knock down a couple free throws as well.”
* Key on the atmosphere at JPJ: “The fans were great. I think they’ve been great all season. Coming from where I came from” – Alabama – “we didn’t have the fan support like this.”
* Hunter on UVA’s formula for success against FSU: “We just played defense. Our shots in the second half weren’t really falling, so we just had to rely on our defense. We practice it every day, so it’s kind of second nature. When we make it hard for other teams to score, they get a little tired, and we can just take advantage of that on the offensive end.”
* Guy: “When we’re hitting shots and we’re in a groove and we’re playing great defense, there’s not much better than that.”
* Hamilton: “I’ve watched a lot of Virginia’s game films over the years, and this team seems to be so well-connected. They took advantage of every mistake we made, every shortcoming we had on the court.”
* Hamilton on the Cavaliers’ potential: “If Key comes in and gives them what he gave them today, off the bench, and the other guys are playing solid, they’re going to be very difficult to beat.”
WHAT’S NEXT: UVA will be back at JPJ on Jan. 15 for a Commonwealth Clash game against 10th-ranked Virginia Tech. First, however, the Cavaliers will play back-to-back road games.
Virginia visits Boston College (9-4, 0-1) on Wednesday night and Clemson (10-4, 0-1) next Saturday afternoon.
The Cavaliers have won five straight over BC, which lost Saturday at Virginia Tech, and lead the series 14-7.