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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– As a lanky 12th-grader at Voyager Academy in Durham, N.C., Jay Huff carried about 190 pounds on his 6-foot-11 frame and was anything but a banger in the low post.
His game has evolved as he’s filled out. Now, as a redshirt junior at the University of Virginia, Huff stands 7-1 and weighs 243 pounds. He’s still more comfortable facing up than playing with his back to the basket, but he’s learning to use his size to his advantage.
His performance Saturday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena offered more evidence of his progress. Against Columbia, Huff hit a 3-pointer, but he also made two jump hooks, which with his length are virtually unblockable.
Three dunks –– two off lob passes from sophomore point guard Kihei Clark – accounted for the rest of Huff’s 13 points in ninth-ranked Virginia’s 60-42 victory.
“He has very good touch and skill,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said. “I’m glad he stepped out and hit that 3, but you take what the defense gives you, and sometimes when there’s guys that are smaller than him or he can get good-enough position, then he can play over the top … He’s gotten stronger, and all those things are showing.”
Huff said his offseason priorities included developing his jump hook, “especially with my right hand. My left hand could still use some improvement.”
Bennett has the option of starting a super-sized frontcourt of Huff, 6-9 Mamadi Diakite and 6-8 Braxton Key. Against Columbia (1-3), Bennett went with Diakite and Key inside and 6-7 Kody Stattmann, 6-5 Tomas Woldetensae and the 5-9 Clark on the perimeter.
Huff checked in at the 13:56 mark of the first half. Twenty-two seconds later, he scored from the right baseline. By game’s end, he’d matched his career high with five blocked shots and added six rebounds, two assists and two steals, all in less than 20 minutes.
“Rebounds and blocked shots for me are big, so I was pretty happy today with how that turned out,” said Huff, who’s profiled in this video. “Points, if they come, they come. If they don’t and we still get the win, it doesn’t really matter to me. But rebounds, that’s my job, that’s Mamadi’s job, that’s Braxton’s job.”
For the Lions (1-3), who are members of the Ivy League, this was their second road game against an ACC opponent. Columbia lost 65-63 at Wake Forest last weekend on a last-second basket. The Lions had a much tougher time at JPJ, where the reigning NCAA champion Cavaliers have won 19 in a row against non-conference foes.
UVA scored the first 10 points Saturday and led 31-17 at the break.
“I think Virginia basketball has got a mystique about it now,” Columbia head coach Jim Engles said, “and I think we were definitely nervous when we started the game. I thought we started to compete better as the game went on.”
The Lions’ best player, senior guard Mike Smith, came in averaging 21.3 points per game. He finished with a game-high 16 points Saturday but had six turnovers against Virginia’s Pack Line defense. Overall, Columbia shot only 28.6 percent from the floor.
“I think there were really good stretches today of defense and really good stretches of offense,” Bennett said. “And then there were some moments where, whether it was personnel-based or inexperience, where we weren’t as good as we can be. But I think we know what our identity has to be. We have to keep showing that. 
“We just want to keep making it hard for opponents to score against us. I think you see at times, when we’ve gotten in trouble, we’ve been able to block some shots at the rim and we’ve been solid for sure, and that’ll have to continue to improve little by little. [Defense will] always be the staple for this team.”
For the first time since the 1948-49 season, Virginia has limited each of its first three opponents to fewer than 50 points. Opponents are shooting 25 percent from the floor against the Wahoos, who have allowed only 110 points (36.7 per game) this season.
“They’re extremely physical, and I don’t think until you play them you actually understand that,” Engles said. “It’s very hard to get in the lane against them. We had some actual decent shots at the rim, and then Huff was able just to take them away.”
Bennett said: “I like it when he’s active defensively with his shot-blocking.”
UVA fans like Huff’s blocks, too. They love his dunks, especially the ones on which Clark lobs the ball high into the air and lets Huff do the rest.
“I kind of just throw it up,” Clark said with a smile, “and he just goes and gets it. I don’t know how he finds the rim on some of those dunks. But he definitely makes my job a little easier, and he can also space the floor and shoot the 3, so it makes it hard on defenders.”
Huff’s first slam Saturday was of the behind-the-head variety. He had a similar dunk last season against Louisville.
“I’ll be honest, we did that quite a bit during the offseason and preseason practices,” Huff said of his on-court chemistry with Clark. “I think I get lucky some of the time, because I could completely miss the rim.”
Key finished with nine points and a game-high nine rebounds. Diakite contributed 13 points and eight rebounds, and Clark had 10 points, a game-high five assists and only one turnover.
GROWING PAINS: Stattman, a sophomore who rarely played last season, and Casey Morsell, a 6-3 freshman, each missed 5 of 6 field-goal attempts against Columbia. 
For the season, Stattmann is shooting 26.3 percent and Morsell 9.5 percent from the floor. Woldetensae, a junior-college transfer, is shooting 18.2 percent.
“These guys that are new, they have to get used to it,” Bennett said.
“Tomas, who’s played at least community college, has a little more experience, but for Casey and Kody, this is new to them, the intensity of the game and the pace of it. So that’s why these experiences are valuable, when they can get some time and it’s not a possession game where it’s going to crush you if it’s not quite ready or they’re finding their way.”
Morsell, who starred at St. John’s College High in Washington, D.C., hasn’t “shot it particularly well, obviously, but he’s got stuff to offer, and I think you just keep working,” Bennett said.
“We used a quote for these young guys and for our team: ‘It takes courage to not get discouraged.’ So if you’re not playing [how] you’re used to, which happens a lot, for young guys, old guys, everyone, for coaches, too, it takes courage to not get discouraged when it’s not going your way. So I just keep telling those guys, stay encouraged, keep working.”
SOUND BITES: Virginia improved to 3-0 all-time about Columbia. Among the postgame comments:
• Bennett: “Every opportunity for us is huge to just try to forge our identity. The message [to the team] was, I think we know what our identity is, but we now have to show it and show it for the majority of the game.”
• Bennett on Columbia guard Mike Smith: “He’s so clever with the ball. He puts pressure on your defense. You better figure out what you’re going to do when either he’s coming off of handoffs or ball screens. They pressure you that way and they run some Princeton-like action that’s cutting and moving, so it tests your discipline and at times exposed a few things where we weren’t disciplined.”
• Columbia coach Jim Engles: “You get worried as a coach when you walk into the game and you see Syracuse [scored] 34 points and [shot] 26 percent [against UVA]. We ain’t Syracuse, so I was actually happy with some of the things we did today.”
UP NEXT: Virginia’s three-game homestand ends Tuesday night with a visit from Vermont, a perennial power in the America East. The Cavaliers (3-0) host the Catamounts (4-0) at 7 o’clock. The schools have met only once in men’s basketball, on Nov. 11, 2007, when UVA won 90-72 at JPJ.
Vermont also won Saturday, edging previously unbeaten St. John’s 70-68 in Queens, N.Y.
The Catamounts finished 27-7 last season after losing to Florida State in the NCAA tournament’s first round.
For information on ticket availability for Tuesday night’s game, click here.