By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – It’s no longer newsworthy when De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome has a big night offensively for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team. Such performances have become routine for the Cavaliers’ Big Three.
Harder to predict has been the scoring output of freshman Kihei Clark, who’s best known as a tenacious on-ball defender. The 5-9 point guard from Los Angeles is fourth on the team in minutes played this season, but through 26 games Clark was averaging only 4.0 points and shooting 29.6 percent from the floor.
All of which made his performance Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena an especially welcome sight – for the Cavaliers, at least – as postseason approaches for head coach Tony Bennett’s team.
In his ninth start of the season, Clark made all three of his shots, including two 3-pointers, as UVA overwhelmed Georgia Tech 81-51 and clinched a double-bye in next month’s ACC tournament.
He finished with eight points, matched his career high with six assists, pulled down three rebounds and had no turnovers. Only once in an ACC game – Virginia’s Feb. 16 win over Notre Dame – has Clark scored more.
“He was very efficient and effective tonight in the game, so that really helps any time we can get that,” Bennett said. “Other guys stepping to the plate and scoring and impacting the game that way is good, and I thought he guarded well, as usual, and was active on the ball.”
In his previous three games, Clark had been a combined 0 for 8 from beyond the arc. He admitted that seeing his first 3-pointer go down against Georgia Tech (12-17 overall, 4-12 ACC) was something of a relief.
“It helps, but I’m just going to keep shooting it,” Clark said. “I know I put in the work so I’m just going to keep shooting the open shot.”
His teammates have encouraged him to do so. To see Clark break through Wednesday night was “awesome,” said Jerome, who finished with a game-high 19 points.
“You’re always happy for the person. People keep coming up big when we need them the most: Braxton at Virginia Tech, and then Kihei made shots today. I just keep telling everyone, if you get a good shot you gotta shoot it and shoot it with confidence.”
Braxton Key, a 6-8 forward, hit two late 3-pointers Feb. 18 in Blacksburg to help the Wahoos sweep their regular-season series with Virginia Tech. Against the Jackets, Key made two more treys, scored eight points, grabbed six rebounds and came up with a team-high two steals in 21 minutes off the bench.
“It’s nice to see both of us make shots,” Clark said.
UVA (25-2, 13-2) broke the game open in the first half with an 11-0 run during which Hunter scored five points and Key and Guy each hit a trey. The Yellow Jackets primarily played zone defense Wednesday night, and the Cavaliers carved it up, with the 6-7 Hunter and the 6-5 Jerome splitting time in the high post.
For the game, the ‘Hoos shot 55.6 percent from the floor. They were 9 for 17 from beyond the arc.
“Our coaches prepared us really well for [the zone],” Jerome said, “and we attacked it really well.”
Hunter, a redshirt sophomore, finished with 18 points, four rebounds and three assists. “We just wanted to get the ball into the middle and attack from there,” he said.
At the other end, Virginia’s Pack Line defense held the Jackets to 37.5-percent accuracy from the floor.
“I thought we had good offense,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said. “We got good action. We had good pace. The ball moved. We took care of the ball. We just missed shots. We missed some opportunities, missed a couple layups right there around the basket. Again, that’s a credit to Virginia’s defense, because they do that to you.”
Nowhere were the Cavaliers more dominant than on the backboards. Led by 6-9 redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite, Virginia outrebounded Georgia Tech 41-21. Diakite collected a career-best eight boards, and four other Cavaliers pulled down at least four apiece.
In rebounding drills with associate head coach Jason Williford, Diakite has been working in practice on improving his timing. Too often, Diakite said, he would jump when the ball hit the rim and then be out of position for the rebound.
Against Georgia Tech, Diakite said, “I was able to hold my ground and get contact first and then get the ball when the ball’s in the air, after it hit the rim.”
Virginia, which is tied with North Carolina for first place in the ACC, plays at home Saturday afternoon and then visits Syracuse on Monday night. That’s a challenging turnaround, and Bennett was happy to be able to lighten his starters’ workloads Wednesday night.
Of the Cavaliers, only Guy played more than 29 minutes, and seldom-used reserves Kody Stattmann, Francesco Badocchi and Marco Anthony finished the game on the floor. Anthony, a 6-4 sophomore, triggered a jubilant reaction from his teammates on the bench with an emphatic dunk at the 2:49 mark.
“We played solid tonight and did what we had to do,” Bennett said, “and I thought the group at the end did a nice job … To have the game in a spot where you could balance the minutes and get different looks at guys and lower that minute count, that’s always a positive. Sometimes in this league you don’t have that opportunity, but we played well enough to be able to give everybody an opportunity, which I think is important.”
NEW LOOK: For the first time this season, UVA started Diakite, Clark, Guy, Jerome and Hunter together. That group played extensively in the second half Saturday at Louisville, where the ‘Hoos rallied for a 64-52 win, and Bennett thought Clark would bother Georgia Tech’s point guard, 6-0 sophomore Jose Alvarado.
“The coaches know what they’re doing,” Diakite said. “It’s based on the matchups. We trust them, and we just get ready, and once you’re in you do what you do.”
BLOCK PARTY: In ACC play, Diakite is averaging 2.2 blocked shots per game – third most in the league. He had three blocks against Georgia Tech, and only once in UVA’s past nine games has Diakite had fewer than two.
“He’s so quick off the floor,” Bennett said. “With his length and his bounce, that really helps us. He’s really got a special ability there, and it seems like he’s coming into his own like that.”
THEY SAID IT: The victory was the Cavaliers’ fifth straight over the Yellow Jackets. Among the postgame comments Wednesday night:
* Bennett, whose team won the ACC tournament as the No. 1 seed last year, on clinching a double-bye again: “We’ve been fortunate to be in that spot the last few years, so that’s good.”
* Jerome on the double-bye: “That’s a great accomplishment, and we’re thankful for that. You never want to take anything for granted. We worked really hard to do that, so we’re thankful for that, but we have such a long way to go, so much better to get.”
* Pastner on the Cavaliers: “They’re a very, very good team, a team that’s good enough to win the national championship.”
* Bennett on UVA’s recent success against zone defenses: “The high post is such a crucial area against good zones. The ball has to move. There has to be a balance between aggressiveness with the dribble and getting into gaps and making the right plays, and movement. It always helps when you stick a few 3s and [when] you’ve got a guy like De’Andre, who’s efficient and really is dangerous in the high post.”
* Key, a transfer from Alabama, on his first season at UVA: “It’s been a whirlwind, but we’re just taking it game by game, and we know once March comes, it’s just a different intensity, so we’re going to have to come ready each and every single night.”
* Key on Clark’s development: “He’s evolved a lot from his first couple games. Obviously, he went up and down a little this year, but that’s going to happen as a freshman.”
HOME STRETCH: Three regular-season games remain for the Cavaliers, and two are at JPJ.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, Virginia (25-2, 13-2) hosts Pittsburgh (12-16, 2-13). UVA has won three straight over Pitt and leads the series 14-4.
The Panthers lost at home to Clemson on Wednesday night.
UVA plays Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on Monday night, then hosts Louisville at JPJ on Saturday, March 9. The regular-season finale will start at 4 p.m. and be televised by ESPN.