By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RALEIGH, N.C. – With ninth-tenths of a second left in overtime, NC State guard Markell Johnson made a free throw he was trying to miss, and third-ranked Virginia could finally exhale Tuesday night.
Junior guard Ty Jerome inbounded the ball to classmate Kyle Guy, who flung it high in the air as the horn sounded at PNC Arena, sealing the Cavaliers’ seventh straight win in this series.
“It was a feeling of relief,” Guy said after UVA’s 66-65 victory. “It was a bad game on our part.”
Coming off a road win over Notre Dame in which they had only two turnovers, the Cavaliers (19-1 overall, 7-1 ACC) committed a season-high 16 against the Wolfpack (16-5, 4-4). Moreover, Virginia gave up 16 offensive rebounds and allowed 14 fast-break points.
“That has not been our formula for success,” head coach Tony Bennett said.
But the Wahoos played rugged halfcourt defense – NC State shot only 34.4 percent from the floor — and “made enough big plays to pull it out,” Bennett said. “It was just enough. It was just one of those games. You could feel it with the crowd, you could feel it with the intensity.”
Two of the biggest plays came in overtime. After NC State took its first lead of the game, on a Johnson 3-pointer on the first possession of OT, Virginia junior Braxton Key, from the high post, lobbed the ball inside to Jay Huff.
The 7-1 redshirt sophomore drew a foul on his dunk – Huff’s third of the game – and then completed the three-point play. That made it 58-58, and UVA never trailed again.
“Ty swung the ball,” Key said, “and from the corner of my eye I saw Jay, and when you see him wide open, just try and put it anywhere near the rim and he’s going to go make a play.”
The score was 61-61 when, on a broken play, Jerome spotted Guy open in the right corner. The 6-2 guard took the pass and buried a 3-pointer with 1:57 left. He’d missed his first four shots from beyond the arc.
“One of them had to go in,” Guy said, smiling.
The teams then traded misses until Wolfpack guard Braxton Beverly’s leaner made it 64-63 with 7.7 seconds to play. UVA inbounded the ball, and NC State fouled redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter, who went to the line for two shots with 5.2 seconds left.
In last year’s ACC championship game in Brooklyn, N.Y., Hunter made 6 of 8 free throws in the final minute to secure Virginia’s victory over North Carolina at Barclays Center. He delivered again Tuesday night, sinking both shots in front of a partisan crowd of 18,211.
“I missed a couple [in regulation] I should have made, so I just tried to stay as calm as possible,” said Hunter, who led all scorers with 15 points.
More drama followed. Hunter’s ill-advised challenge of a 25-footer with less than a second remaining resulted in his fifth foul and sent Johnson to the line for three free throws. Bennett didn’t need to say anything when Hunter reached the UVA bench.
“I know it was a bad foul,” Hunter said. “Everyone knows it was a bad foul. That’s on me.”
Fortunately for the ‘Hoos, Johnson missed his first free throw, to the home fans’ dismay. He then made his second, after which he tried to miss his third, hoping to give the Pack a chance for a game-tying putback. But Johnson’s shot dropped through, and the Cavaliers survived.
“Thankful for the win, but we need to grow from this and learn from it,” Bennett said.
This UVA team has little experience in close games. The ‘Hoos came to Raleigh having outscored opponents by an average of 21.5 points this season. Their halftime lead Tuesday night was only four, 27-23, but when Jerome’s second 3-pointer put the Cavaliers up 42-28 with 12:12 left in the second half, they appeared headed for another comfortable victory.
Instead, they brought “losing into the equation,” as Bennett put it, “with fouls and turnovers and unsound decisions.”
In the end, though, UVA found a way to win. Five Cavaliers grabbed at least five rebounds apiece, led by the 6-8 Key with eight, and six Cavaliers scored at least eight points each.
Jerome had a game-high six assists, and 6-9 redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite matched his career high with four blocked shots as Virginia outlasted an opponent that was 12-1 at home this season.
“You gotta earn it here,” Bennett said.
“It was a great atmosphere, and I feel like we won ugly,” Hunter said. “You try to take as many positives from that as possible. We still have a lot of things to work on, but we still managed to get out of here with a win, so we’ll take it.”
Key, who transferred from Alabama to UVA last summer, agreed.
“We’re not used to being in situations like this, thank goodness, but then again, you kind of need to get used to situations like this moving forward,” Key said. “In the [postseason], you don’t know what a game’s going to be like, so to get an overtime game and have that little pressure, it was good for us to come out with a W.”
ADAPTABILITY: The Cavaliers came in averaging 20.7 attempts – and 8.2 makes – from 3-point range per game. Against NC State, they were 4 for 10 from beyond the arc. Before Tuesday night, Virginia had not attempted fewer than 13 3-pointers in a game this season.
NC State defenders “were denying a lot of passes, and so the driving lanes were open,” Guy said.
Indeed, the ‘Hoos were 11 for 17 on two-point attempts in the first half. Only one of their first-half shots was from long range, and that was a Guy miss.
“We were getting some good looks,” Bennett said. “We were getting [them] right at the rim. You’ve got to take the easy shots, for sure.
“Take what the defense gives you, and that’s what they were giving us. They were doing a good job of getting to our 3-point shooters, and I thought we did a nice job at least of getting some easy ones, minus the turnovers and some of the decisions.”
NC State head coach Kevin Keatts said: “For the most part, I felt like we defended the 3-point line. I know they shot 40 percent, but we held them to just four makes. Kyle Guy made an unbelievable three at the end.”
THEY SAID IT: The overtime victory was the Cavaliers’ first since Dec. 22, 2015, when they defeated California 63-62 at John Paul Jones Arena. Among the postgame comments Tuesday night:
* Guy: “Coach was rightfully mad after the game and got after us, because we did not play anywhere near our standard, and he holds us to a high standard.”
* Bennett on the Wolfpack’s Wyatt Walker, a 6-9, 240-pound graduate student who had five offensive rebounds: “I thought Walker was just a man on the glass … He’s strong. I saw him move [6-10, 250-pound Jack Salt] a couple times, which guys don’t do.”
* Bennett on the 6-7 Hunter: “His game has continued to improve, and there’s so much more in there. I’m just thankful that he had the poise and the composure at the free-throw line, because we needed those.”
* Key on Huff, who scored eight points: “He came out and made some big plays for us. He [provides] a lot of momentum swings when he’s in the game. He just allows us to do a lot of things offensively that we’re not able to do with other people.”
* Keatts: “I told the team after the game that, obviously, it’s okay to be disappointed. I thought our guys played hard. I thought they played their hearts out, and I thought they played until the end … I thought Virginia made a couple of more plays, especially in overtime, to win the game.”
UP NEXT: After playing five of their past seven games on the road, the Cavaliers are back home Saturday afternoon. At 2 p.m., Virginia takes on Miami at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Hurricanes (9-10, 1-6) host 12th-ranked Virginia Tech (16-3, 5-2) in Coral Gables, Fla., on Wednesday night.
UVA has won five of its past seven meetings with Miami.