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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Growing up in Richmond, Jason Williford gained an appreciation for the rivalry between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech long before he set foot on Grounds.
Williford, a four-year letterman in basketball for UVA in the 1990s, is now the associate head coach at his alma mater. The Cavaliers’ roster includes only two Virginians (Jayden Nixon and Austin Katstra), plus Mamadi Diakite, a native of Guinea who graduated from Blue Ridge School in Greene County, and Braxton Key, who grew up in Tennessee but spent his senior year of high school at Oak Hill Academy in Southwest Virginia.
“I don’t know if all these guys really understand what the rivalry means,” Williford said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
Then he laughed. “I think they understand,” he said. “Especially with football, you hear it all the time. We have to hold our own.”
In a series that dates back to the 1914-15 season, UVA leads 91-56. But not since 2014-15, the Hokies’ first year under head coach Buzz Williams, have the Cavaliers swept their regular-season series with Tech. The teams have split their past six meetings, two of which went to overtime.
Their next confrontation comes Tuesday night in the first of their two Commonwealth Clash games this season. (The second is Feb. 18 in Blacksburg.) At 8 o’clock, fourth-ranked Virginia (15-0 overall, 3-0 ACC) hosts ninth-ranked Virginia Tech (14-1, 3-0) at JPJ. 
This marks the first time the longtime rivals will meet with each ranked in top 10.
“It’s going to be an amazing atmosphere,” junior guard Ty Jerome said Saturday after UVA’s 63-43 win at Clemson.
That was also the case, of course, during the Hokies’ most recent visit to JPJ, on Feb. 10, 2018. But Tech, which UVA had blown out in Blacksburg five weeks earlier, blocked out the home crowd’s roar and came away with a 61-60 victory in overtime.
The Cavaliers’ 26-point win at Cassell Coliseum “was just one of those nights,” Williford said. “We got rolling. But again, it’s one of those fluky things. You have to be prepared to get their best, and we knew what they were going to come with [at JPJ] last year. They’re going to bring it again [Tuesday night]. They’re a year older, a year more experienced, and so we just gotta be ready.”
Had an observer not seen the schedule, it would have been impossible to tell at practice Monday that UVA was preparing to face a major rival, let alone a top-10 opponent. It was a practice much like most other UVA practices.
That’s been a constant in Tony Bennett’s 10 seasons as the Wahoos’ head coach.
“For us, Tony’s preparation is always the same,” Williford said. “It’s about us. It’s about what we do, and let’s just get ready for who’s next. Whatever the rank is, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the next opponent, and quite honestly you can throw rankings and records out the door when these two teams play. They’re going to give us all they’ve got, and we’re going to bring all we’ve got, and may the best team win.”
Bennett said: “Both teams are certainly capable of beating each other, and it’s whoever’s right and can execute offensively and be real stingy defensively. That’s what it comes down to when you play against a team like Virginia Tech, and I’m sure it’ll be a war.”
For Key, a junior forward who transferred from Alabama to UVA last summer, this will be his first taste of the rivalry. But his father played basketball at Radford, and members of Key’s extended family live in such places as Harrisonburg, Roanoke and Richmond.
Those relatives include former UVA great Ralph Sampson, but also some whose loyalties will be torn Tuesday night.
“My family, a lot of them are Hokies, so it’s going to be tough,” Key said, smiling.
It’s not difficult to see why UVA and Tech have been so difficult to beat this season. Among ACC teams, the Cavaliers (plus-22.6) and the Hokies (plus-21.9) rank second and third, respectively, in scoring margin.
In field goal percentage, Tech is No. 2 and Virginia is No. 4. In 3-point field goal percentage, Tech is No. 1 and UVA is No. 2. In scoring defense, UVA is No. 1 and Tech is No. 2. In field goal percentage defense, UVA is No. 1 and Tech is No. 6.
Early last season, the Hokies were suspect defensively. Starting with their win at JPJ, however, they’re been significantly better at that end of the floor.
“They have a team-oriented defense with movable parts and good athleticism,” Bennett said. “So that’s the challenging thing, because they’re back, they’re set. 
“They play for each other and jam the lane, clog, flood, however you want to say it, and make you share the ball and play good offense to get quality shots. And then when they beat us here, they really took away a lot of stuff. They take pride in their defense, you can see it, and they’ve continued from that.”
The Hokies’ leader is the only player on their roster from Virginia: point guard Justin Robinson, a 6-1 senior from Manassas. He’s averaging 13.1 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game.
“He’s kind of a one-man fast break,” Bennett said. “Offensively-speaking, he can really attack and put pressure on your defense in transition.
“He’s just got a complete game, and then he competes defensively … He’s a passionate player and every year has gotten better and better, and he’s leading his team to a heck of a season up to this point.”
Of the Cavaliers’ rotation players, most are familiar with this rivalry. The exceptions are Key and Kihei Clark, a 5-9 freshman from Los Angeles. Clark has much played of the season with his left wrist immobilized, first by a cast and then by a splint, but he’s a tenacious defender who figures to match up against Robinson often Tuesday night.
“We’re asking a freshman to come in and guard a senior and be ready,” Williford said. “That’s a tall task. We’re going to do it collectively on defense, but hopefully Kihei can provide some assistance and stay in front [of Robinson].”
On the ACC coaches’ teleconference Monday, Williams praised Bennett and the Cavaliers. “They were good enough to win the national championship last year,” Williams said, “and they’re for sure good enough – and better, in my opinion, in many ways – to win the championship this year.”
Bennett prefers not to make too much out of any one game, especially during the regular season. Still, this Wisconsin native knows the dynamic is different when rivals meet.
“You play your in-state teams, that’s high-intensity, high-level,” Bennett said. “It makes for an exciting atmosphere, for sure. Your players are aware of it, your fans are aware of it, and you just go out and try to compete to the best of your abilities and execute.”