By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– On the basketball court, Wake Forest is not to be confused with Duke, a team stocked with future NBA players, and comparing the programs can be a foolish exercise. Even so, Virginia had reason to be pleased with its performance against Wake late Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
Three nights after defensive breakdowns doomed them in a two-point loss to then-No.1 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Cavaliers returned to form in the area that head coach Tony Bennett values most. Third-ranked UVA held the Demon Deacons to 30.9-percent accuracy from the floor and rolled to a 68-45 win, its seventh straight victory in this series.
Nine minutes in, UVA led 25-3. The Wahoos (17-1, 5-1) faltered late in the first half but never were threatened after intermission as they moved into a three-way tie with Duke and North Carolina for first place in the ACC.
“I liked how we corrected some things to start the game defensively that weren’t there against Duke,” Bennett said. “We were really committed together to stopping the ball. That was a point of emphasis in practice for a couple days, and we did a good job of that.”
At the other end of the floor, Virginia overwhelmed the Deacons (8-10, 1-5) with its offensive balance and versatility. Five players scored in double figures for the ‘Hoos – Kyle Guy (12 points), Jay Huff (12), Mamadi Diakite (11), De’Andre Hunter (11) and Ty Jerome (10) — and a sixth, Jack Salt, had seven points.
“They’re obviously a very talented team and they’re playing at a high level right now,” Wake head coach Danny Manning said, “but it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, We can’t come out and start games the way we started it today. It put us in too great of a hole.”
Had UVA not lost its way late in the first half, the game might have been even more one-sided. Wake closed the half on a 14-4 run during which the Cavaliers’ decision-making, especially on offense, displeased their head coach.
“I told them at halftime I thought we got seduced, or it was a little bit of fool’s gold, into [poor] shot selection,” Bennett said.
For stretches, his players looked like they were “trying to turn it into a little bit of a pickup game … and that wasn’t acceptable,” Bennett said. “I thought they righted the ship the second half, ran harder offense, got the right kinds of shots and shored up the defense.”
Diakite said: “Coach wasn’t very happy [at halftime], but in the second half we came back right for the most part.”
A 6-9 redshirt junior, Diakite was 1 for 5 from the floor against Duke and scored only two points. Against Wake, he personally staked Virginia to a 7-0 lead.
“Mamadi got us off to a real good start,” Bennett said.
Then it was Hunter’s turn. In little more than three minutes, the 6-7 redshirt sophomore scored seven points to help UVA stretch its lead to 17-3. At the first TV timeout, Bennett inserted three reserves – Huff, Braxton Key and Kihei Clark — but that brought no relief for Wake.
A 7-1 redshirt sophomore, Huff thrilled the near-capacity crowd with a flurry of eight points in 63 seconds. He started with a 3-pointer off a slick over-the-head pass from Guy, followed with a three-point play, and then soared to slam home a lob pass from Jerome.
Huff’s array of offensive moves “surprised me when he first got here, but this is stuff that we see every day,” said Guy, a 6-2 junior. “He does a lot of miraculous things on the offensive end every day at practice, makes a lot of tough shots … The defensive end is where he struggled, and now he’s starting to pick that up. That’s good for us.”
In Bennett’s program, significant roles are awarded only to players who master his trademark Pack Line defense. That’s been a struggle for Huff, as has been well-chronicled, but he’s made clear progress this season.
“I think the consistency has been better,” Huff said of his defensive improvement. “It hasn’t been perfect. But I think that’s helped, for sure. In some of the games it’s been kind of off and on. Some games it’s been pretty solid for the most part.”
Bennett said: “I keep challenging him, because I think there’s a lot in there.”
For Huff, who made 4 of 6 shots from the floor, the 12 points were his high in an ACC game. He also had two rebounds and a game-high two blocked shots in 13-plus minutes off the bench.
“He’s been working really hard the past few months in practice trying to get the defense down,” said Salt, a 6-10 fifth-year senior who led Virginia with eight rebounds. “That was the only reason he wasn’t playing, because he’s a great offensive player. He’s doing a good job getting out on ball screens, which he previously didn’t do well, but he’s gotten a lot better at that, so I’m happy for him that he’s getting out on the floor.”
On the eve of the NCAA tournament last March, Huff tore the labrum in his right shoulder during a practice in Charlotte, N.C. The injury, which required surgery, sidelined Huff for the rest of the spring and limited his participation in UVA’s summer workouts. It also kept him from lifting weights and adding pounds and muscle to his slender frame.
“He’s just got to keep being continuous and working hard defensively,” Bennett said. “He’s not there at times, but he’s got to keep embracing physicality. There are areas that all of our guys can improve on, but I like it that he’s bothering some shots. He seems like his length is bothering people, and he’s trying hard to show on ball screens and hustle back, and I think there are less breakdowns, which is a good thing.”
MILESTONE: Early in the second half, Guy became the 48th player in program history to hit the 1,000-point mark for his career. He scored 256 points as a freshman and 481 as a sophomore, when he was a third-team All-American, and he has 270 this season.
“I’m just really honored to have reached that accomplishment,” Guy said. “It’s something that I did set a goal for myself coming into college.”
Salt and his other teammates help free him for shoots, “so I’m really grateful for them,” said Guy, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer (15.0 ppg) this season.
With 188 treys, Guy ranks eighth on UVA’s career list.That Virginia came out with a sense of purpose Tuesday night did not surprise him.
“I think we really wanted to make a point, just to let everyone know that we were completely past last game,” Guy said, referring to the Cavaliers’ 72-70 loss to Duke. “I think a lot of people acted like someone died or something, but it was just a game. You win some, you lose some. I think the challenge is just making sure that we remain humble and have that humility and stay unified and go back to our pillars, play by play.”
THEY SAID IT: The victory was the Cavaliers’ 12th straight at JPJ, a streak that began last season. Among the noteworthy comments from players and coaches afterward:
* Bennett: “We got off to that big lead, and then it was kind of like, ‘All right, my turn to shoot a quick shot, your turn to take questionable shots.’ But when we settled in and moved the defense, and whenever we share the ball, it looks good.”
* Manning on Wake’s slow start: “I don’t know if ‘flat’ is the right word. Do we have to give more resistance defensively? Yeah. But they’re pretty damn good, too.”
* Manning on the 250-pound Salt, one of the strongest players in the college game: “He’s huge. He moves well. He commands a lot of space. When he’s setting a pick, he’s a wide load to navigate.”
* Manning on Diakite: “Tonight he came out and did some things I hadn’t seen him do on a consistent basis.”
* Diakite, who matched his career high with seven rebounds, on his approach Tuesday night: “Just focused and trying to get back and forget about the last game. Just bouncing back from that. I was trying to be very aggressive.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: On Saturday, for the fourth time in six games, the Cavaliers will play away from John Paul Jones Arena. At 1 p.m., Virginia (17-1, 5-1) meets Notre Dame (11-8, 1-5) at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind.
The Fighting Irish also played Tuesday night, losing 63-61 to Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
UVA leads its series with Notre Dame 11-2. The Cavaliers are 4-0 against the Irish in South Bend.