By Jeff White (email@example.com)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. –– The tallest player on the court, redshirt junior Jay Huff, grabbed a career-best 12 rebounds Wednesday night at the Carrier Dome.
The shortest player on the court, sophomore Kihei Clark, pulled down 11 boards, also a career high, as reigning NCAA champion Virginia opened the season with a 48-34 victory over ACC rival Syracuse.
Huff stands 7-1. Clark is listed at 5-9.
“All I’m saying is, he wouldn’t have gotten all those rebounds if I hadn’t boxed my man out,” Huff said, smiling. “We’ll give him that. He took a few of mine, too. I was going for them and then I saw him there and I said, ‘Oh, shoot, I’m going to trip on him.’ “
The 11th-ranked Cavaliers were in high spirits after this one, and understandably so. Against the Orange (0-1), they won going away –– despite turning the ball over 16 times and shooting 16 percent from 3-point range.
“I see that,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said, looking at the box score, “and that has to be worked on and improved, but because of our ability to defend and rebound, that’s what won us the game.”
In improving to 11-0 in ACC openers under Bennett, the Wahoos outrebounded the Orange 47-28. Their defense was equally impressive. Syracuse made only 13 of 55 shots (23.6 percent) against Virginia’s trademark Pack Line defense.
The 34 points were Syracuse’s fewest in a game since Feb. 21, 1945. Virginia led for the final 35 minutes and 28 seconds in a game showcased on the new ACC Network.
“We just are not ready to play against that defense,” said Jim Boeheim, the Orange’s Hall of Fame head coach. “I thought we were going to be a little better, but we just didn’t do the things we needed to offensively. They are very difficult to play against. They’re in the top two or three defensive teams every year. You don’t want to play them in the first game. Offenses take a little bit more time.”
When the Hoos played at the Carrier Dome last season, they hit 18 treys, tying the program record, and won 79-53. This game, as expected, was more of a grind.
“It’s an easy game when you’re making every single 3 you throw up,” Huff said.
Bennett said: “That team’s gone. This is our team. This is a different time, and we understand that.”
These Cavaliers don’t have that kind of firepower, so they’ll rely heavily on the rugged man-to-man defense that’s been the foundation of Bennett’s program. Virginia’s roster includes such players as Huff, 6-9 fifth-year senior Mamadi Diakite, 6-8 senior Braxton Key, 6-8 freshman Justin McKoy and 6-7 sophomore Kody Stattmann, and the Orange struggled against their size.
In particular, Bennett said, “I think Mamadi and Jay’s length was significant.”
Diakite led the Cavaliers with 12 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked a game-high two shots. Huff totaled 11 points and 12 rebounds: the first double-double of his college career. Key contributed seven points, two assists and a game-high two steals along with his 10 boards.
And then there was Clark, who in last year’s Elite Eight recorded the greatest assist in program history, a long pass to Diakite, whose last-second jumper forced overtime against Purdue.
Against Syracuse, Clark played a career-high 40 minutes and finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds and a game-high seven assists. His previous high in rebounds? Five. His previous high in assists? Six.
Until Wednesday night, Clark had never posted a double-double as a Cavalier, and it was reasonable to think his breakthrough would reflect double figures in points and assists, not rebounds.
“My teammates did a great job of boxing out, so I was just to clean up all the loose boards,” Clark said. “Credit to them.”
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE: The Cavaliers led the nation in scoring defense in 2018-19, allowing an average of only 56.1 points per game, and they figure to be stingy again this season.
Asked how good his latest team could be at that end of the floor, Bennett said, “I’m not sure, but I know we have to be good defensively. That will be very significant for how good we can be. I think our team understands that that will be a very important aspect of it. There’s the size, and there’s the physicality, and I think the willingness. And it starts with willingness. If there’s no willingness, then you’re wasting your time.
“There’s willingness by the coaching staff, for sure, and there’s willingness and buy-in and purpose by the young men to do it. I think it will definitely be a defensive team.”
LOCKDOWN: The Orange’s best player, 6-6 redshirt junior Elijah Hughes, scored a team-high 14 points, but nothing came easily for him. For much of the game, UVA’s Casey Morsell, a 6-3, 195-pound freshman, guarded Hughes, who made only 4 of 14 shots from the floor (3 of 10 from beyond the arc).
“I think he was well-prepared from his high school and AAU days, and he can spread out and guard the ball, and he’s physical,” Bennett said of Morsell, a graduate of St. John’s College High in Washington, D.C.
“He understands that about himself. That’s his identity. He’ll get more comfortable, hopefully, offensively, but he had his hands full [with Hughes] and that was the challenge we put before him. And I thought he did a good job.”
Asked about Morsell, Huff said, “I could tell when he got here [in June] that he was a good one-on-one defender. The only thing that was needed was to teach him the Pack Line, which he picked up relatively quickly.”
FACES IN THE CROWD: The official attendance at the 35,012-seat Carrier Dome was 22,518. Spectators included former Syracuse greats Dave Bing and Carmelo Anthony, as well as Mark Jerome, whose son Ty starred at guard for the Cavaliers.
Ty Jerome is now a rookie with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, where his teammates include Aron Baynes, who played for Bennett at Washington State.
SOUND BITES: The victory was UVA’s fourth straight over Syracuse. Among the postgame comments:
• Bennett on Virginia’s being the first NCAA champion since UCLA in 1967-68 to open the next season with a true road game: “It is what it is. You show up and play.”
• Bennett on Clark’s 11 rebounds: “That’s amazing.”
• Clark on playing the full 40 minutes: “It was the first game, so I wasn’t that tired. We don’t have 20 games under our belt yet. It was a good first game, and if I need to play 40 minutes, then that’s what I gotta do.”
• Bennett on Clark: “He’s got a motor, and he’s got a heart in terms of his endurance and his toughness. I figured he’d have to be out there the majority of the game, if not all.”
• Diakite, who was called for one personal, on avoiding foul trouble: “In order to stay in the game more, I have to eliminate a couple things, and that’s one of them. But I also try to make sure I’m not being passive. I try to make sure I’m aggressive, but I don’t want to take dumb fouls. Because I know the team needs me.”
• Key on seeing the exodus of Orange fans with 5:12 remaining: “That’s always a good feeling when you’re the road team, seeing the fans leave a little early.”
• Key on playing in a hostile atmosphere: “We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. That’s what you come to Virginia for. We’re comfortable. We’re calm.”
• Huff on whether he sensed frustration among Syracuse players: “A little bit. They tend to be a run-and-gun team on offense, and we scouted them, we watched the film, and that was a big emphasis, transition defense, as it always is, but especially against Syracuse. So we just tried to make sure that we didn’t let them get out and run, because when they get out and run, they’re a dangerous team.”
• Syracuse’s Hughes on facing Virginia’s defense: “It’s hard. They have guys who can guard the ball, they have shot blockers, they have good help-side defense, so it’s just really hard to get in a rhythm against them.”
• Syracuse freshman Joe Girard, who was 1 for 6 from the floor, on the Pack Line defense: “You can’t really prepare for it until you really see it.”
UP NEXT: UVA (1-0) plays its home opener Sunday against James Madison (1-0) at John Paul Jones Arena. ESPNU will televise the 6 p.m. game.
JMU opened the season Wednesday night with a 79-74 win over visiting Charlotte, which is led by former UVA associate head coach Ron Sanchez. The Dukes, picked to finish fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association, have four starters back from the team that finished 14-19 last season.
Virginia is 10-0 all-time against JMU. They haven’t met since Nov. 14, 2014, when the Cavaliers romped 79-51 in Harrisonburg.