BROOKLYN – If there’s one thing that sticks in Kyle Guy’s craw, it’s passing up an open jump shot.
But that’s just what the freshman did on his first-ever ACC Tournament possession: instead of shooting after leaping in mid-air, he changed his mind, and his misguided pass bounced helplessly out of bounds. So, the next possession, he looked his defender in the face, took a hard dribble into a pull-up jumper, and was backpedaling with confidence well before the ball swished through the net.
That’s the man-bun-wearing, loosey-goosey freshman Virginia fans have come to know and love – and, after matching his career high with 20 points in Virginia’s 75-63 win over Pittsburgh in his postseason debut, don’t expect him to give up many more jumpers for the next three-plus years.
“I jumped in the air on my first shot and threw it out of bounds, so I said, ‘Next time down, if it’s a good shot, I’m just going to shoot it,’” Guy said in the locker room after the game, which ended just shy of midnight at the Barclays Center.
He also added: “I’m really not afraid of the moment, but whatever the team needs from me, I’m willing to do.”
Virginia’s fourth straight win and fourth straight year opening ACC Tournament play with a victory had a lot to do with Guy, who knocked in 7 of his 12 field goals and added 3 assists with just 2 turnovers in a team-high 32 minutes. He and backcourt freshman pal Ty Jerome scored 24 of the Wahoos’ first 38 points, including a bomb from each of them to cap the first half and give the Hoos their first double-digit lead, 34-23. Jerome finished with 11 points, 4 assists, and a career-high 7 rebounds.
But as the game wore on and as Pittsburgh refused to allow a repeat of the blowout loss it suffered to UVA in Charlottesville on Saturday, the game took on a different theme. It wasn’t about swag, or youth, or a star in the making. It was about, as coach Tony Bennett likes to say, the guys who have “battled.” For four years, London Perrantes has battled.
The senior and Guy’s roommate this week had faded into the background a bit earlier in the game as Guy spread his postseason wings. But after Pitt closed to 44-43 with 13 minutes to go, Perrantes scored 10 of his team’s next 15 points, including 8 straight, to get the Cavs another double-digit lead, 59-49 at the 6-minute mark that never withered.
“He’s the best point guard in the country,” Guy said of Perrantes, with nods of approval coming from Isaiah Wilkins at a nearby locker. “He’s clutch. He’s been there, done that. He’s very clutch, and he’s not scared of the moment either.”
Perrantes’ first half was reminiscent of a late-season shooting slump, which he had seemingly shaken after two breakout games prior to the tournament. He was 1 of 4 in the first half Wednesday, however, and a couple of his misses weren’t close. In fact, it was his mishandle of a rebound that led to a Pittsburgh dunk that drew the margin to one again in the second half.
Perrantes responded. He hit two free throws on the next possession. After five points from Guy and Devon Hall, Perrantes added back-to-back 3’s – the second on his patented crossover, step-back jumper from deep – as the largely orange-and-blue-clad crowd roared its approval. He capped the surge with a layup and ended up with 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists.
“The defense they ran was a switching man. It’s kind of hard to get a rhythm when you’re trying to feel your way through the game,” said Perrantes, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the crucial stretch. “Or for myself, I was trying to feel my way through, pick my spots. I had some open looks, missed them, but that’s the game. … In the second half, I just had some openings and knocked down some shots.”
Perrantes’ buckets weren’t all that got the crowd revved during that run. With the score 46-44, Jack Salt dove after an offensive rebound and batted it off a Pittsburgh player – “he didn’t look like he had a chance at it,” Bennett said – to save a Virginia possession. The crowd had hardly settled when Salt was called for his fourth foul, one that had Bennett – and the orange and blue faithful – in disbelief.
“I’d have to watch it on tape. I thought he was set,” Bennett said about the call on Salt. “He was walled up, and it was his fourth – that foul, I didn’t see.”
Bennett was quickly soothed as his gritty senior Perrantes became the first Virginia player to advance in the ACC Tournament in all four years. Virginia won its fourth straight, which seemed to relegate its preceding four-game losing streak to the distant past. The box score of this latest win supported an optimistic trend for Virginia fans; the Cavaliers knocked down 11 of 22 3-pointers, assisted on 16 of their 24 field goals, and held the Panthers to 40 percent shooting. They’ll aim to continue that pattern against a more challenging and well-rested opponent in Notre Dame in the quarterfinals Thursday night, although the Cavaliers throttled the Irish 71-54 on the road on Jan. 22 and are 5-0 against them under Bennett.
“Our defense,” Perrantes said, when asked how Virginia has been successful against Notre Dame. “They can spread the floor, just like Pitt. Obviously, different types of weapons, but they can go to the spread, five-guard lineup with – I kind of count Bonzie [Colson] as a guard. But it gives people trouble. As long as we hang our head on our defense, I guess that’s why we’ve been having a good record with them.”
He added: “We actually were talking to Joe Harris today about how our defense is built for March because we’re going to play teams with high-powered offense, but as long as our defense is there night in and night out, we’ll be able to give ourselves a good shot to win games.”