By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CLEMSON, S.C.– After missing 16 of its first 17 shots from the floor against fourth-ranked Virginia, Clemson pulled itself together for a stretch Saturday afternoon. The Tigers, who trailed by 10 late in the first half, cut UVA’s lead to two early in the second half, and the slumbering home fans at Littlejohn Coliseum awakened.
The Cavaliers quickly doused their enthusiasm. Redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter hit the first of Virginia’s five second-half 3-pointers. That made it 32-27, and then redshirt sophomore Jay Huff checked in for fifth-year senior Jack Salt, who’d picked up his third foul.
Virginia went on to win 63-43, an ACC victory in which the 7-1, 232-pound Huff played a pivotal part.
“He completely changed the game for us,” junior guard Ty Jerome said. “He gave us a new look offensively, where all five guys can stretch the floor … which was huge for us today and will be huge for us going forward.”
That Huff is a talented offensive player is no secret, but his defensive lapses have kept him from consistently earning a spot in head coach Tony Bennett’s rotation. At Littlejohn, though, there were clear signs of progress from Huff in front of a crowd that included former UVA standout Justin Anderson, who’s now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
“Just his length and his size bothered some shots,” Bennett said.
First, Huff played textbook low-post defense on 6-9, 245-pound center Elijah Thomas, who missed a shot near the basket. Then Huff made a trey from the top of the key, pushing the Wahoos’ lead to eight, and he wasn’t done. After harassing Thomas into another miss, Huff was fouled at the other end while trying to dunk a lob pass.
He hit 1 of 2 from the line, after which Jerome sank a 3-pointer. The Tigers called a timeout, but that didn’t improve their fortunes. Virginia forward Braxton Key came up with a steal on Clemson’s next possession, starting a fast break that ended when Jerome lobbed the ball to Huff for a layup that made it 41-28.
“That’s why you always stay ready,” Bennett said.
Late in the game, Huff drove for a thunderous one-handed slam that silenced what was left of the home crowd.
“It feels good to help the team, and it was a good time,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”
There was much to enjoy. In 10 minutes – all in the second half – Huff totaled 11 points, seven rebounds and one blocked shot.
“That makes us a much deeper and even better team when guys step up like that,” junior guard Kyle Guy said. “I’m really happy for him and proud of him, because he’s come a long way. Having no fear when he’s on the court is a big part of his game.”
Huff, who’s from Durham, N.C., was part of the four-player recruiting class that enrolled at UVA in June 2016. His classmates – Jerome, Hunter and Guy – took on prominent roles in 2017-18, but not until this season has Huff started to play regularly.
“He’s working hard,” Bennett said. “I’ve been using him in the first half of the last few games. I didn’t today [because of the] matchups. But I just thought it was time [to try Huff].
“There’s still room to grow, certainly, for all of us defensively, but he’s moving in the right direction, and offensively he was very good.”
So, as usual, was the 6-2 Guy, who led the Cavaliers (15-0 overall, 3-0 ACC) with 13 points. All came in the game’s first 15 minutes.
“He just needs a sliver of space,” Bennett said, “and he kind of kept us alive when we were missing early.”
Guy attempted only four shots in the second half against a Clemson defense determined to shut him down. On a couple of possessions the Tigers broke out a box-and-one against Guy. That was fine with him.
“I don’t really care about points,” Guy said. “I was glad to give the team a lift early, but when they started focusing on me, they forgot about everybody else.”
Jerome scored all eight of his points in the second half, and Hunter had 10 of his 12 after intermission.
The Tigers were “really making [Guy’s] cuts hard, and that’s why in the second half we made some adjustments and different guys started attacking, and we got some mismatches,” Bennett said. “But he was definitely a marked man, and you have to [cover him] when he gets it rolling like that. I thought he drew a lot of attention, and that helped the others.”
As they had in January 2017, the ‘Hoos played at Littlejohn on the same day Clemson honored its national champion football team with a parade and then a celebration at nearby Memorial Stadium.
At halftime, head football coach Dabo Swinney brought his team onto the court at Littlejohn and addressed the crowd.
“Go Tigers!” Swinney yelled in closing. “Now, let’s beat Virginia!”
Instead, UVA stretched its winning streak in the series to nine games. Overall, the Tigers (10-6, 0-3) shot 25.9 percent from the floor against the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense. Only one player scored in double figures for Clemson – guard Marcquise Reed (14 points) – and he missed 11 of 14 shots from the floor.
Bennett was considerably happier with his team’s defense Saturday than he had been Wednesday night at Boston College, where UVA won 83-56. Nearly 11 minutes into the game, the Tigers had two points.
“We didn’t give them a lot of good looks,” Bennett said. “The lane was sealed.”
The Cavaliers employed the post-trap effectively against Thomas, who had a game-high four turnovers, and “I just thought there weren’t a lot of easy looks where we were behind the play as much as we were against Boston College,” Bennett said.
CLEANING THE GLASS: UVA outrebounded Clemson 46-36. Key, a 6-8 junior, and the 6-10 Salt had eight boards apiece for the Cavaliers, and the 6-7 Hunter and Huff pulled down seven each. Mamadi Diakite, a 6-9 redshirt junior, was scoreless Saturday but had five rebounds in his 19 minutes.
Key, who transferred from Alabama to Virginia last summer, leads the team in rebounding (5.9 per game).
“We need that, and he has been providing that, among other things,” Bennett said. “In a game where they have a big, physical guy in Thomas [and] others, you gotta just go up and get some, and Braxton got a couple key offensive rebounds and kept some plays alive.”
Before Key arrived at UVA, Guy said, “I knew he was a complete player that could do a little bit of everything, but I didn’t know he was a great rebounder, and that much he is.”
Key said: “It’s something that I feel like I can do to help separate myself from [opposing players] on the floor. I take pride in it. It’s an area that we needed a lot of, and I think I can do a great job of it.”
In Virginia’s ACC opener, Key scored a season-high 20 points against Florida State. He had nine against BC and seven against Clemson. For the season, he’s averaging 7.4 points game.
MAKING THEMSELVES AT HOME: The ACC road win was the Cavaliers’ 12th in a row, the fourth-longest such streak in conference history.
“It’s not easy, or everyone would be doing it,” Guy said of UVA’s success on the road. “But we’re bred a little bit differently. We train for this. Yeah, our legs are tired, but we’ve practiced for this endurance.”
In his short time with the ‘Hoos, Key has been impressed with their composure away from home.
“Everyone’s calm,” Key said. “That’s one of the main things I’ve noticed.”
Jerome said: “Like I said [after the BC game], I just try to keep everyone poised. When [Clemson] cut it to two, I brought everyone into a huddle and just said, ‘We’re good. Calm down. Get some stops, and our offense will come.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
FEARLESS: Freshman point guard Kihei Clark fractured his left wrist Dec. 3 against Morgan State. Since then, he’s been playing with his wrist immobilized, first by a cast and more recently by a splint.
Clark is right-handed, but the injury, which required surgery, has affected his offense. He came to Clemson shooting only 26.7 percent from 3-point range. And so the Cavaliers were encouraged to see Clark go 1 for 2 from beyond the arc Saturday.
“Big,” Bennett said of Clark’s 3-pointer, “and I want him to continue to keep being aggressive, touching the paint, making some plays.”
Clark’s wrist is healing, Bennett said, and he may be able to replace the splint with tape soon.
“Just think about playing with a frozen wrist, even though it’s your opposite hand,” Bennett said. “I’ve marveled at how he’s been able to manage with that, and it hasn’t changed his heart at all.”
THEY SAID IT: After Bennett’s postgame press conference, several UVA players answered questions from reporters outside the visitors’ locker room. Among the Cavaliers’ comments:
* Huff on his defensive improvement: “I feel like I have [improved], through both experience and learning from Mamadi and Jack. I’ve been watching and observing them for a while and learning from them. I was focused on that, because I know that’s what we focus on [as a team].”
* Huff, who’s 5 for 9 from beyond the arc this season, on the 3-pointer he made Saturday: “It was an ugly one, and I’d have been mad if I was guarding me and it went in like that, but I’ll take what I can get.”
* Guy on the Tigers, who have faced three of the ACC’s top teams (Duke, Syracuse and UVA) so far: “They’re a good team. They didn’t stop fighting. It was a good test for us.”
* Bennett on his halftime conversation with Swinney: “I stand in awe of how the [Clemson] program is run, from everything I see and know, and what they do, but I still love Virginia football.”
COMMONWEALTH CLASH: After winning back-to-back road games, UVA is home Tuesday night against Virginia Tech.
The fourth-ranked ‘Hoos (15-0, 3-0) host the ninth-ranked Hokies (14-1, 3-0) at 8 o’clock at John Paul Jones Arena. Click here to see which seats are still available.
Virginia Tech will be well-rested for its visit to JPJ. The game will be the Hokies’ first since Wednesday, when they edged Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Virginia played at BC later that night.
UVA has won 10 of its past 13 games with Virginia Tech. The longtime rivals split their two meetings last season.
“The bottom line is, they’re a top-10 team,” Jerome said of the Hokies. “Our place is going to be rocking. The students are back, so it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere. I think we’re all just looking forward to it.”