With 2:42 remaining in Tuesday’s basketball game with Grambling State, Virginia calmly walked the ball up the floor. Over the next 16 seconds, the ball pinged around eight times as passes went in and out of the Tigers’ zone before landing in the corner for an open 3-pointer.
The fact that the final pass landed in walk-on Jeff Jones’ hands and he nailed the shot delighted the John Paul Jones Arena crowd, who witnessed the third largest margin of victory in program history as the Hoos cruised 90-34. It also impressed Grambling State coach Shawn Walker because it represented what makes No. 7 UVA such a tough team to face. The Cavaliers find open shots, while trying like the dickens to prevent you from doing the same.
The passing part of that winning formula – Virginia logged 23 assists on 33 made shots Tuesday – drew opponent praise after the game.
“I do not think you can really prepare for a team that passes the ball the way they do,” Walker said. “Even all the way down until the end of the game, the guy that got the shot, I guess he was a walk-on or whatever the case may be, they were not really trying to get him a shot, the ball just finds guys on that team, and I think that is wonderful. I think that Virginia’s ability to pass the ball, passing is a unique skill, and when you can move the ball, it is almost like they come down the floor and say ‘we are going to pass the ball 12 times this time and then we are going to get a good shot,’ and that is exactly what happens. ‘Okay, this time we are going to pass it 15 times and we are going to get a good shot.’ Even as the shot clock is coming down, there is no panic, the ball finds the open man.”
UVA’s offensive display zapped the drama out of the matchup quickly. The Cavaliers shot a sizzling 72% in the first half (18-25), including 58.3% from 3-point range (7-12) and eventually landed on 55% shooting (33-60) for the game. Another balanced scoring effort materialized out of that shooting display as eight players scored at least 5 points and everyone that checked in got at least one bucket.
Kyle Guy led all scorers with 20 points in only 13 minutes as he put on a blistering shooting performance from beyond the arc. Juniors Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson added 12 points each, while Mamadi Diakite scored 8. London Perrantes and Ty Jerome chipped in 6 points each, while leading the passing parade. Jerome finished with 5 assists, while Perrantes had 4. Guy and Devon Hall tallied 3 assists apiece as well.
The firepower from Guy, Shayok, and Thompson came efficiently. Guy made 5 of 6 3-pointers as he shredded the State defense. Shayok made 5 of 7 shots to get his dozen, while Thompson made 4 of 7 for his points. The continued comfort level on display from all three players has emerged as a key theme through the Hoos’ 4-0 start. The juniors showed flashes of it in the past and have settled into larger roles so far this season.
“I would definitely say we’re more comfortable,” Thompson said. “Throughout last year, Marial and I both had times where we were starting and we both had games where we hardly played. Being out there now and getting a lot more minutes just feels a lot better. We’re just going out there and trying to play with a lot more confidence every night.”
Guy, meanwhile, did not fall into the hype trap that comes with McDonald’s All-American status and press to impress. He’s allowed the offense to create shots for him, while also getting others involved.
“A good way of playing more and more each game with Coach Bennett is not turning the ball over,” Guy said. “So, I have tried to not be conservative but just let the game come to me. I feel like I have a second nature feel for the game, so I try to get everyone involved and then when I’m open I just don’t even think about it. I shoot.”
”I’ll tell you what I like – he’s letting the game come,” Bennett said. ”He really is. He’s taking those shots and he’s not pressing or forcing. … He’s been that way in practice. I think he’s established himself where he can fly off those screens and hit the quick release, but he has a nice feel for when to shoot and when not to shoot. That’s impressed me most with a guy that has a weapon like that and can shoot it. I think that serves him well.”
With Virginia’s defense also clicking, Grambling struggled to keep up on the scoreboard. The Hoos surged to a 49-9 lead at the half, the largest halftime lead to date under Bennett. They eventually won by 56 points, the largest win of the Bennett era and the third largest in program history. UVA held the Tigers to 23.1% shooting and helped create 21 turnovers thanks in part to 11 steals.
The final score marked the 17th time an opponent scored less than 40 points against in Bennett’s eight seasons. That includes the last three games against St. Francis-Brooklyn, Yale, and Grambling. It’s the first time UVA accomplished that feat in the shot clock era.
All of that added up to extended time for Jerome and Virginia’s walk-on trio of Justice Bartley, Trevon Gross Jr., and Jones. All three players saw at least 10 minutes of action as they closed out the game. Bartley brought a boisterous roar from the crowd as he threw down a one-handed breakaway dunk, while Gross scored for the first time in his Cavalier career. Plus, you had that ping-pong passing 3-pointer from Jones that encapsulated the complete team performance for the night.
Bennett remains thankful for those moments when they come around in games.
”You should see how how hard they work and what they do,” Bennett said. ”They’re such servants, I say that all the time, in practice. They’ll stand there and bother the shooters. They’ll rebound. They just do whatever’s required. Those are the good things that you see and that you’re so happy for. Like I said, I’m glad everybody scored and it was nice to see.”