By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Forgive Louisville men’s basketball fans if they feel a sense of foreboding when they see Virginia coming.
Last March, UVA scored five points in the final 0.9 seconds to stun the Cardinals 67-66 at the KFC Yum! Center, the last three coming on a De’Andre Hunter shot that banked in as time expired.
That was the Cavaliers’ sixth straight victory in the series. They ran their streak to seven with a 17-point win over Louisville in last year’s ACC tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y., and then made it eight in a row Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.
This one featured no last-second drama, but it was a remarkable victory for third-ranked UVA nonetheless. After a first half in which they were 0 for 11 from 3-point range, the Wahoos trailed by 10, and their deficit grew to 12 one minute into the second half.
Still, they never panicked, even in the face of Louisville’s sensational first-half 3-point shooting (10 for 16).
“We knew we were fine,” Hunter said. “Most teams can’t shoot like that for an entire game. So we knew that if we just kept playing the way we do, then we were going to come back and win.”
Such is the confidence of a team that has set an ACC record with five road wins over top-25 opponents this season. Sure enough, the ‘Hoos caught 18th-ranked Louisville and then pulled away for a 64-52 victory Saturday. The Cavaliers finished 2 of 17 on 3-pointers, but they found other ways to win.
“It was a real gritty second half for us,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said.
The Cardinals (18-10 overall, 9-6 ACC), who are in their first season under head coach Chris Mack, made only 2 of 17 shots from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes. Virginia (24-2, 12-2) finished with a 38-4 advantage in points in the paint.
“It was so improbable last year, that one, but this one was the way you’re supposed to come back,” Bennett said.
On an afternoon when junior guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, two of the nation’s premier outside shooters, were a combined 0 for 11 from long range, the Cavaliers were undeterred.
Hunter, a 6-7 redshirt sophomore, scored a career-best 26 points, and 6-9 redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite and 7-1 redshirt sophomore Jay Huff combined for 26 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots off the bench.
“Dre carried us today, and Jay gave us a huge lift, Mamadi as well, Kihei [Clark] as well,” said Jerome, who had a team-high five assists. “So it was just awesome to see other guys step up, especially when myself and Kyle were needing everyone to step up for us.”
Hunter, Diakite and Huff were a combined 22 for 29 from the floor.
“Different guys at different times,” Bennett said. “[It’s important] to be able to win in different ways, and I thought De’Andre was the catalyst to that, with other guys stepping up.”
Hunter, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2017-18, spent much of the first half on the bench Saturday after picking up his second foul at the 9:21 mark. In the second half, he dominated at both ends, scoring 19 points and harassing Louisville forward Jordan Nwora, who went 2 for 9 from the floor after scoring 12 first-half points.
“He was ridiculous,” Huff said of Hunter.
“He was special,” Bennett said. “That was a special performance.”
The only Cavalier to hit a 3-point attempt Saturday, Hunter finished 7 of 10 overall from the floor (2 for 2 from beyond the arc) and added four rebounds, two steals and one block.
“That’s about as efficient as it gets,” Bennett said.
For Hunter to “go off, especially when we needed it as a team, probably the most we have all season, that was really special,” Jerome said. “It was awesome to see, and it was a huge lift for us.”
The 6-2 Guy, who matched his career high with eight rebounds, missed all five of his 3-point attempts, but he was 4 for 4 from the line, handed out three assists, and gave UVA its first lead, at 49-47, with a left-handed layup at the 8:44 mark of the second half.
“If you had told me we’d be 2 of 17 [from 3-point range] and the first half [would unfold that way],” Bennett told reporters, “I would have said, ‘We might be in for a long one tonight,’ but we toughened up and played well.”
Jerome said: “It was just a matter of continuing to do what we do, and we pulled out a tough one.”
The victory was the Cavaliers’ fourth straight at the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center. Asked if he likes playing in the Cardinals’ arena, Hunter smiled.
“I love it,” he said.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The Cavaliers’ starters Saturday included 6-8 junior Braxton Key and 6-10 fifth-year senior Jack Salt. Neither played in the second half as Bennett used Huff and Diakite extensively.
Diakite has started 16 games this season, and he came to Louisville averaging nearly 20 minutes per game. Huff, however, was averaging only 9.2 minutes per game. He played 17 minutes, 21 seconds against Louisville, his career high in an ACC game.
“His offensive skills, his touch around the rim and his length is certainly unquestioned,” Bennett said. “It’s just a matter of him continuing to be good defensively, take care of the ball, get stronger, and in all those areas he’s improving.”
Huff finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. On the first of his six field goals, he leaped to catch an alley-oop from freshman Kihei Clark and dunked while facing away from the rim.
“He’s an interesting [center],” Bennett said. “What I loved today is he made some interior jump hooks and shots. It wasn’t just out at the 3-point line or a drive. That was exciting to see, and then he used his length to block a couple shots. Those things are all there and they’re coming. He was rewarded for the way he played today, and we were rewarded for the way he played, as a team.”
Asked about his jump hook, Huff said, “I wouldn’t say that it’s my strength or even my favorite part of the game, but I think I’ve improved on it.”
FACES IN THE CROWD: Former UVA basketball player Terry Gates was seated behind the visitors’ bench, as was Bill Lazor, former offensive coordinator for Virginia’s football team.
Gates attended Louisville’s Ballard High School, as did two other former Cavaliers: Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker.
THEY SAID IT: In the regular-season finale for both teams, Virginia and Louisville will meet again March 9 at 4 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena. Among the postgame comments Saturday:
* Hunter on Huff: “Some games he gets a lot of time, some games he doesn’t get as much, and as a player that could really affect your confidence. But I feel like as his teammates, we gotta really keep his confidence up, because he can do a lot … He can rebound, he can shoot 3s, he can basically do it all as a big man.”
* Huff on the poise UVA’s veterans display in hostile environments: “They’ve all been through it. They know that most people don’t like us when it comes to going to their place, mainly because we’ve got a good road record. But I think we enjoy it in some ways, too.”
* Bennett on Diakite’s improvement: “For bigger players, it’s a process, and it’s a hard process to short-cut. It’s just the reality of it, the way we think we have to play to be successful, holding guys [accountable] defensively, all those things. And you just see them get more and more accustomed to it.”
* Jerome on Diakite, who totaled 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks: “He’s just getting more complete every day, and when he’s locked in he’s as good as anyone.”
* Mack: “We knew, and should know, that you’re going to have some droughts when you play against Virginia. Their defense is as good as anybody in the country. When we had those droughts in the first half, we didn’t let it affect us at all. In the second half, to start the half, we did.”
* Mack on the Cavaliers’ post defense: “They’re really, really physical. They’re legal, but they’re physical. I think that in order to try to get those guys out of position, you have to be able to move the ball, move yourself. I think our team got a little fatigued, probably more mentally than physically. I thought we had a lot of movement, both in transition, and then when we were in the halfcourt, in the first half, not as much in the second half.”
* Mack on the Cardinals’ defense against Guy and Jerome: “I think if you’re going to beat Virginia, you’ve got to hold those two down as best as you can. We needed to do a better job on some of their other players.”
UP NEXT: Four regular-season games remain for UVA. That stretch begins Wednesday night at JPJ, where Virginia (24-2, 12-2) hosts Georgia Tech (12-16, 4-11) at 7 o’clock.
The Yellow Jackets lost 80-65 to Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., on Saturday afternoon.
Virginia has won four straight over Georgia Tech and seven of the teams’ past eight meetings.