By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG – At the half, third-ranked Virginia led 20th-ranked Virginia Tech by three points Monday night, not the worst situation in which a visiting basketball team can find itself at Cassell Coliseum.
Based on UVA head coach Tony Bennett’s halftime remarks, however, it “was kind of hard to remember we were up,” junior guard Ty Jerome said, smiling. “He really gave it to us.”
Bennett had reason to be upset. Lapses marred the Cavaliers’ first 20 minutes, and if not for the sharp-shooting of junior guard Kyle Guy, who scored 17 first-half points, they might have faced a substantial deficit.
“We weren’t sharp defensively,” Bennett said. “We were loose with the ball. We were too finesse. And then in the second half it turned in the right direction.”
The result was a 64-58 victory for UVA, which swept its regular-season series with Tech and clinched a point in the schools’ Commonwealth Clash competition. Bennett improved his record against the Hokies to 14-6.
“I liked our second half,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect, but I liked how [Virginia’s players] responded. I did not like our first half at all.”
Guy made 6 of 13 shots from beyond the arc and finished with 23 points to lead the Wahoos, who for the second straight week won on the road against a ranked opponent on ESPN’s Big Monday showcase.
“We’ll take the win no matter how it comes,” Guy said after his third consecutive game with at least 20 points. “We’re a gritty team and a tough team. We had a couple mental lapses, but nothing we can’t fix.”
Also scoring in double figures for UVA (23-2 overall, 11-2 ACC) were Jerome (16 points) and redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter (10). Redshirt junior post player Mamadi Diakite contributed eight points, six rebounds and two blocked shots, and junior forward Braxton Key hit two clutch treys in the final six minutes.
“They showed some toughness in the second half,” Bennett said of his players.
For the sixth straight game, Tech (20-6, 9-5) was without its All-ACC point guard, senior Justin Robinson, who was on crutches Monday night, with his left foot in a protective boot.
Even with Robinson sidelined, the Hokies have continued to lead the ACC in field-goal percentage and 3-point field-goal percentage. But they struggled against the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense, making only 3 of 28 shots (10.7 percent) from 3-point range and 23 of 58 (39.7 percent) overall.
“All credit to them defensively,” Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams said.
The ‘Hoos, who hammered the Hokies 81-59 at John Paul Jones Arena last month, were far from flawless in the rematch. They turned the ball over 13 times and gave up 21 second-chance points. But Jerome and Guy typically thrive in pressure situations, and they delivered again Monday night.
After the Hokies scored five straight points to cut the Cavaliers’ lead in half, Jerome pulled up for a 3-pointer from the deep left wing, directly in front of the visitors’ bench. It dropped through to push Virginia’ lead back to eight and silence the Tech fans in the crowd of 9,275.
“It definitely was contested,” Jerome said, “but the shot clock’s winding down, and my teammates believe in me, and Coach believes in me. He gives me the freedom to be aggressive at the right times, and I just took advantage of it, and the shot went in.”
Bennett said: “He’s made a lot of those. He’s so competitive, and he’s won us a lot of games.”
The Cavaliers extended their lead to 13 with 5:50 to play on the first of Key’s treys, but the Hokies responded with four straight points. Again Jerome stopped their run, this time on a drive from the right wing.
Tech rallied yet again, cutting its deficit to seven with 2:34 remaining, only to see Guy take a pass from Jerome and knock down his sixth 3-pointer. A three-point play by Tech guard Ahmed Hill made it 61-54 with 1:25 left, but Diakite passed to Key for a trey that effectively sealed the victory for Virginia.
Key had made only one 3-pointer in UVA’s previous eight games.
Against Virginia Tech, Key “moved well, he made a couple nice passes, and then we needed those 3s to go in,” Bennett said, “because they were really keying on Ty and on Kyle.”
Key said: “I knew it would come … I’ve been working hard every day, shooting a lot of shots every day after practice and before, so it’s just good to see them go down.”
A 6-8 transfer from Alabama, Key missed his first two 3-point attempts Monday night – also in the second half – including one that went in and out of the basket. That left him visibly frustrated, but his teammates encouraged him.
Jerome said: “I told him, ‘Keep shooting. If you’re open, you gotta let it go. Shoot with confidence. I believe in you.’ And to see him hit that next one, I think, was big for him, and we needed it too.”
THEY SAID IT: The victory was the Cavaliers’ 12th in their past 15 games against the Hokies. Among the postgame comments of note:
* Bennett: “It was a tale of two halves.”
* Bennett on the injured Robinson: “I told Justin before the game, to compete against him these four years, I think he’s one of the best competitors in our league. I just hope he can be healthy and get back soon, because he has a future, and he’s hard to handle.”
* Guy on the first-half 3-pointer he banked in: “I didn’t know that one was going in, but part of being a good shooter is just shooting the ball with confidence. I know that I can get hot at any moment, so when my teammates are feeding me, I’ll keep shooting.”
* The 6-2 Guy, with a smile, on his emphatic stickback dunk late in the first half: “It felt great. You can let a lot of frustration out when you’re that high in the air.”
* Guy on the 6-9 Diakite’s missed breakaway dunk in the final seconds: “He’ll have to learn from me in practice.”
* Jerome on the Hokies: “They’re rivals, but I like them more than I do some other teams. I love playing against them, because it’s always crazy.”
* Williams: “I think Virginia’s execution level was very good despite what we were trying to do on both ends.”
UP NEXT: Five regular-season games remain for UVA, and two of them are against Louisville.
At noon Saturday, the Cavaliers meet the 18th-ranked Cardinals (18-8, 9-4) at the KFC Yum! Center. The rematch, March 9 at JPJ, will be the regular-season finale for both teams.
Louisville is in its first season under former Xavier head coach Chris Mack.
Virginia has won seven straight over Louisville and leads the series 13-4.