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By Jeff White (
ATLANTA –– Outside the visiting locker room at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, University of Virginia associate head coach Jason Williford was headed to the team bus when he looked over and spotted a 7-footer surrounded by reporters.
“Good job, Jay Huff!” Williford shouted from the stairs.
“Thanks, Coach!” Huff answered before turning his attention back to the crowd around him.
“You guys get that?” Huff said, smiling.
On a night when the Wahoos broke a three-game losing streak, their longest since the 2016-17 season, spirits were high as they prepared to head home to Charlottesville.
“The energy after the game was great,” senior forward Braxton Key said. “A lot of guys are ecstatic. We knew we just needed to get one win, to get that off our back, and then move forward.”
In a 63-58 victory over Georgia Tech, UVA had multiple standouts. “Everybody chipped in at different times,” head coach Tony Bennett said.
No Cavalier played better than Huff, a 7-1, 243-pound redshirt junior from Durham, N.C. He finished with 17 points and six blocked shots––both career highs––and led the Hoos (12-5 overall, 4-3 ACC) with eight rebounds.
That was probably Huff’s best performance as a Cavalier, Key said, “and it wasn’t just his scoring. I told him after the game, it was just his defensive presence. He was helping us at the rim, just bothering some shots, not even always getting the blocks, playing cat and house with some of their guards, making them make tough passes into their big guys. He did a great job. I think he was the reason we won the game, for sure.”
Huff was 7 for 10 from the floor. He made the only 3-pointer he attempted, and it might have been the game’s biggest shot. Huff’s trey, with 7:32 remaining, stopped a 9-0 run by Georgia Tech, which had cut the Hoos’ lead to two.
“We called the [play] for him, and he stepped up and knocked the shot down,” sophomore point guard Kihei Clark said. “We know he can shoot it, so he’s just got to continue to shoot with confidence.”
In 2018-19, when the Hoos won the program’s first NCAA championship, Huff made 14 of 31 shots from beyond the arc. He’s 7 for 22 on 3-pointers this season, so his percentage has dipped, but he’s “been shooting a lot more recently, just getting in the gym and working on that specifically,” Huff said.
The Cavaliers, who went ahead for good on a Key jumper at the 8:11 mark of the first half, led by 14 with 14:40 to play. It was an 11-point game with 10:28 left, to the delight of the UVA fans who made up a substantial portion of the crowd of 7,314, but the Yellow Jackets (8-10, 3-4) refused to go quietly.
A 3-pointer by Tech point guard Jose Alvarado (game-high 20 points) made it 48-46 with 8:11 remaining, and no longer did the Cavaliers appear certain to end their skid. But Key followed Huff’s trey with a driving layup, and Virginia made just enough free throws late to hold off the Jackets.
Clark, who had a career-high nine turnovers Wednesday in a loss at No. 9 Florida State, finished with seven points, a game-high seven assists, four rebounds and three steals Saturday night. He turned the ball over only twice.
“He has such a load on his plate,” Bennett said. “He has to do so much, and I think at times he’s played like a warrior and been remarkable, and of course there’s times that he hasn’t played his best, but he’s got to do that. I thought he was tough tonight, as were other guys, so it was good to see him [play well].”
Key contributed 10 points, six rebounds, a season-high six assists and two steals. His highlights included two hustle plays in the final three minutes. On the first, Key grabbed what Bennett called “a man’s rebound” after a missed 3-pointer by teammate Tomas Woldetensae. The extended possession ended with a Mamadi Diakite jumper that made it 57-50 with 2:05 left.
Then, after missing the front end of a one-and-one with 1:02 to play, Key chased down the long rebound. The Cavaliers didn’t waste the extra opportunity. Woldetensae passed to Huff for a dunk that made it a seven-point game with 52.5 seconds left.
Key was 0 for 4 from the line, but overall “he did some really good things,” Bennett said. “I know he’s frustrated with a couple of the turnovers and misses at the end of the game where we could have salted it away and it would have been not quite that close, but I thought he made some good tough drives. He had a hard job guarding [Michael] Devoe. Devoe’s been playing really well. We just tried to tell him to be a roadblock, spread out, get in a stance, keep him in front, and I thought he did a good job.”
Diakite, a 6-9 fifth-year senior, had five of Virginia’s 12 turnovers, but he made winning plays too, finishing with 17 points, six rebounds and two blocks. The 6-5 Woldetensae, a junior-college transfer, played 31 minutes in his first start since Dec. 29. He hit three 3-pointers, matching his high as a Cavalier.
It all helped the Hoos, who had lost to Boston College, Syracuse (in overtime) and Florida State since beating Virginia Tech on Jan. 4.
“That was very painful for me and, obviously, my teammates,” Diakite said.
“Obviously you’re not happy when you lose games,” Clark said, “especially close ones where you know you should have come away with a win.”
Bennett said: “In all three of those losses, we had chances to win. We haven’t learned how to win yet at a high level. Now today, we won. It wasn’t great and we faltered a little bit and the wheels were wobbling, but we won.”
SPECIAL GUESTS: Chris Slade, now the head football coach at Pace Academy in Atlanta, attended the Cavaliers’ shootaround with his son Saturday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion. Slade was a consensus All-American as a UVA defensive end.
Midway through the shootaround, another familiar face showed up: De’Andre Hunter, one of the stars of the UVA team that won the NCAA championship last season. Hunter is a rookie with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, for whom he had 19 points and five rebounds Saturday night in a loss to Detroit.
Diakite spoke with Hunter for several minutes after the session ended.
“He told me to hang in there and keep playing and keep leading the young guys,” Diakite said, “and at some point they’re going to start responding. Today was a perfect example. They responded to it.”
SOUND BITES: The victory was the Cavaliers’ sixth straight over the Jackets. Among the postgame comments:
* Diakite on his pregame message to Huff: “Be a monster. Block everything if you can. Grab every rebound defensively. Look for the offensive boards and make sure you blow up screens.”
• Huff on finishing plus-17 in the plus/minus column of the box score: “That’s not bad, right? I don’t know much about that stuff, but it sounds good.”
• Key on the Cavaliers’ sense of urgency: “Our backs were against the wall. We knew we needed a win.”
• Bennett on the pressure that comes with being the reigning NCAA champion: “I think our guys feel that at times, and that’s all part of it, and they’ve got to learn to play with it. I know it’s a lot on these guys, to get everyone’s best punch … They’re not taking that banner down, but that’s last year’s team, and that team is not here, except for a couple guys.”

• Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner on his team’s 18 turnovers: “They’ve been an Achilles’ heel of ours all year … and we just have to be better about it. It’s something we spend a lot of time on, but it’s bit us in the rear many times.”

• Bennett on Virginia’s success forcing turnovers Saturday night: “It wasn’t anything specific. We tried to do what we do, but just really be active with our length and our hands. Any time we can get transition points off a turnover, we’re always searching for ways to get more.”

• Pastner: “I know our record is not good, but we’re better than our record. This is the best we’ve been in my four years, I can assure you. That doesn’t give us any moral victory or a pat on our back. I can only tell you, from my chair, we’re better than we’ve been, and we’ve had a lot of close losses this year.”
QUICK TURNAROUND: UVA has little time to prepare for its next game. The Cavaliers got back to John Paul Jones Arena around 1:15 a.m. Sunday, and they play NC State (13-5, 4-3) there at 7 p.m. Monday.
A limited number of tickets remain for the game, which ESPN will televise.
The Hoos have won eight straight over the Wolfpack, which defeated visiting Clemson 60-54 on Saturday afternoon.