By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – He’d played in 88 consecutive games for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, starting 58 of them, before watching in street clothes from the home bench Saturday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
Without guard Ty Jerome, UVA isn’t quite as imposing, and the 6-5 junior’s absence was felt against ACC rival Miami. Still, the third-ranked Cavaliers were too much for the Hurricanes and grinded out a 56-46 victory that left them atop the league standings.
In his first start since Dec. 9, Kihei Clark took over at point guard for Jerome, who played 41 minutes Tuesday night in UVA’s overtime win at NC State.
Jerome hurt his back early in the game at PNC Center and wasn’t available Saturday. That meant a larger role for Clark, a 5-9 freshman who came in averaging 25.2 minutes per game. He played 36-plus minutes against Miami.
“When my number’s called, my number’s called,” Clark said.
He finished with nine points, five rebounds and a game-high six assists, but Clark also had six of Virginia’s 14 turnovers. The Wahoos (20-1 overall, 8-1 ACC) came in averaging only 8.8 turnovers per game, the fewest of any Division I team.
“There were stretches of good ball, but he also looked like a freshman,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said of Clark, who was matched against 5-7 sophomore Chris Lykes, Miami’s leading scorer, for most of the game. “He hasn’t shown that quite so much, but he’ll grow from it.”
Clark said: “I had a couple careless mistakes, so I’ve just got to clean those up and limit my turnovers.
Next up for UVA, of course, is a Saturday night date with second-ranked Duke at JPJ. Whether Jerome, who has a stellar 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season, will be available against the Blue Devils is uncertain.
“I think it’s going in the right direction,” Bennett said. “We’ll see.”
Against Miami, the Jerome-less Wahoos “had a hard time finding the balance of running our stuff hard and trusting the offense to produce a quality shot [instead of having] to force the action,” Bennett said. “But it was an invaluable experience for all of our guys to play in that.”
The Cavaliers shot only 42.3 percent from the floor, in part because All-America guard Kyle Guy (4 for 15) was off the mark, but they outrebounded the ‘Canes 42-24 and blocked six shots.
“I would say four of them were layups,” said Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga, a former UVA assistant.
Mamadi Diakite, a 6-9 redshirt junior, led the ‘Hoos with three blocks. He’s totaled 11 in his past three games. Diakite also had five offensive rebounds against the ‘Canes (9-12, 1-8).
“The offensive rebounds and the blocked shots, those are the winning plays, those are the important plays that in games like this can save you, Bennett said.
Diakite said: “I was just trying to get more possessions for the team.”
Miami, which came in averaging 74.4 points per game, shot 34 percent from the floor and missed 17 of 21 attempts from beyond the arc. Still, UVA’s Pack Line defense was far from flawless, Bennett said.
The Hurricanes “missed an awful lot of wide-open looks,” Bennett said. “Let’s keep it real. We were fortunate in that regard, but there were enough good plays defensively.”
The ‘Hoos led for the final 29 minutes Saturday. They went ahead to stay on a deep 3-pointer by Guy. For the game, the 6-2 junior made only 2 of 8 shots from long range, but his second trey, with 7:25 left in the second half, ended a 5-0 run by Miami and pushed UVA’s lead back to nine.
“I’m never scared to shoot the ball,” Guy said, “and my teammates trust me, so I’m just going to keep shooting.”
The Cavaliers have reached the 20-win mark for the eighth consecutive season, a program record. Against Miami, their standouts included redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, who had 14 points, six rebounds, two steals, two steals and one block; fifth-year senior center Jack Salt, who matched his season high with nine rebounds; and junior forward Braxton Key, who contributed five points, eight rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals off the bench.
Key, who transferred from Alabama to UVA last summer, twice assisted Diakite on baskets in the final 5:30, the first an alley-oop dunk that made it 50-39.
“I complimented [Key] after the game in the locker room,” Bennett told reporters. “I said, ‘You had a couple hard possessions offensively, but you didn’t let that affect the rest of your game,’ and that’s a mature player.
“When guys either miss shots or make mistakes and then the rest of their game goes south, you can tell that’s inexperience. So you make a turnover? So you miss shots? That’s going to happen. Can you [still] affect the game? That’s a quality I think mature players must have and have to grow into. There’s room for growth in some of our guys in that way, but I like that [Key] did that.”
Virginia acquitted itself better on the backboards than it had Tuesday night. The Wolfpack grabbed 16 offensive rebounds against UVA, with 6-9 Wyatt Walker coming up with five of them.
“We got punked on the glass at NC State,” Salt said. “No. 33 dominated us. So as bigs I think we took it personally to get some more boards [against Miami].”
The 6-10 Salt is from Auckland, New Zealand, as is Miami’s Sam Waardenburg, a 6-10 redshirt sophomore. Waardenburg had 10 points, three boards, one block and one steal Saturday.
“Sam’s a really good guy,” Salt said. “He went to high school 10 minutes away from me. He’s younger than me, but I’ve trained with him quite a bit.”
OUT OF CHARACTER: At NC State, the Cavaliers matched their season high with 16 turnovers, and they were careless with the ball against Miami, too.
“I don’t know what to attribute it to,” Guy said. “I think it’s just something we gotta take care of this week … I think just being a little bit more focused, a little bit more laser-focused will probably help.”
Bennett said the Cavaliers “worked really hard in practice doing sureness drills” ahead of the Miami game, and they’ll continue to stress ballhandling.
“You just keep working at it,” he said. “Again, there’s a level of soundness without being passive, and you still gotta make plays when people pressure you … We were down a guard, and we don’t have a ton of depth in the guard corps, so it required us to play a little bigger today than we have been most of the year.”
THEY SAID IT: The victory was Virginia’s 13th in a row at JPJ. Among the postgame comments from players and coaches:
* Guy on playing without Jerome: “Absolutely it felt a little off, but I think it was a good test for our guys to try to fight through that. We had an injury happen last year” – to Hunter on the eve of the NCAA tournament – “that we weren’t able to fight through, so to get it now is a good thing. I wish him a speedy recovery.”
* Bennett on Clark’s similarities to Lykes, who led Miami with 16 points: “Different games, but that same desire and that same grit.”
* Bennett on Diakite’s shot-blocking: “I think [Virginia had] quite a few breakdowns, so guys were at the rim, and he had more opportunities to go up and swat ’em. But I think his timing’s getting better, and he’s so quick off the floor. That’s unmistakable, and I liked a lot of those.”
* Larrañaga: “Virginia’s very good. Tony’s done a great job and it’s not about the game, it’s really about the culture, the program. Dick Bennett, his dad, [was a] fantastic coach. I think Tony learned so much from him and then has just added his own personality into it. He’s got a great staff that’s recruited I think much better than the credit they get.”
* Larrañaga: “We did a pretty good job defensively. We were just not able to make some very makeable shots. I always tell the team, when you play Virginia, it’s the first team to 50 that wins, and they got to 50 before we did. In fact, we didn’t get to 50.”
* Larrañaga on the score of No. 12 Virginia Tech’s 47-24 win over No. 23 NC State in Raleigh: “That can’t be true. That’s unbelievable.”
REMATCH: The Cavaliers don’t play again until next Saturday night, when they’ll have an opportunity to avenge their only loss. At 6 p.m., third-ranked UVA (20-1, 8-1) takes on No. 2 Duke (19-2, 7-1) at John Paul Jones Arena.
The game, which ESPN will televise, is a sellout, and it will be a special day at JPJ. This will mark the fourth time UVA has hosted ESPN’s College GameDay show.
All fans are invited to attend College GameDay. Admission and parking are free. Doors at JPJ will open at 9:30 a.m., and the broadcast runs from 11 a.m. to noon on ESPN.
When the teams met Jan. 19 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Blue Devils prevailed 72-70. The ‘Hoos made only 3 of 17 shots from 3-point range in that game.
Duke routed St. John’s 91-61 in a non-conference game Saturday afternoon in Durham, N.C.