The John Paul Jones Arena crowd showered the Virginia men’s basketball team with a loud round of applause as the final horn sounded Saturday afternoon, clearly appreciative of the 65-39 domination of Atlantic Coast Conference and in-state rival Virginia Tech they had just seen.
Virginia’s vaunted defense was exceptional all game, holding an efficient and capable Virginia Tech offense 35 points under their season average. The Cavaliers turned in a solid performance on offense as well, scoring 30 or more points in both halves for the first time since its November 10 win over James Madison and for just the second time all year. Today’s effort was one of UVA’s best all-around performances of the 2019-20 campaign. As always, it started with the defense.
“[Virginia Tech’s three-point shooting] was a big concern,” said Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, whose team improves to 11-2 overall and 3-0 in the ACC. “I thought we prepared well and practiced hard. We were locked in. Did they miss some open shots? Yes. But did we make them shoot contested shots the majority of the time? Yes. I thought we first got our defense set and all the things that needed to happen for us to be effective defensively against a team that is dangerous. I thought our guys came ready to go.”
Senior forward Braxton Key, playing with a new splint on his injured left wrist that helped his comfort-level on the court, scored four early points as Virginia started fast, claiming a 7-2 lead just under three minutes in. As the Pack Line defense swarmed – Tech averaged 9.5 turnovers per game coming in but had eight turnovers in the first half alone – and limited quality looks, UVA began to pull away thanks to an offense that has struggled mightily most of the season.
Virginia, which made 40.9% of its field goals and was 27.4% from 3 in its first 12 games, was 12-of-26 (46.2%) in the first half, including 3-of-10 from beyond the arc. Kody Stattman capped off a successful first 20 minutes with a slam – Bennett called timeout with 6.6 seconds left to set up the play, which involved an inbounds pass to Jay Huff, who calmly found the second-year Aussie cutting to the basket for two. All five Cavalier starters – Key, Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell, Kody Stattmann and Mamadi Diakite – scored in the first half, with Key (11) and Clark (8) combining for 19 points. Virginia led 30-17.
Sharpshooting redshirt freshman Landers Nolley II, a player capable of lighting up the scoreboard, kept Virginia Tech afloat with a 15-point first half that included 6-of-10 shooting and Tech’s only two 3s of the half. The rest of Virginia Tech players were a combined 1-of-14 from the field, including 0-for-10 from 3.
Nolley was unable to duplicate his first-half performance in the second 20 minutes. In fact, a 3-pointer with 3:50 remaining in the game would be his only points of the second half. By that time his team trailed by 19 points.
“Really it was just team defense,” Key said of UVA’s second-half defense on Nolley, who was Virginia Tech’s lone double-digit scorer with 18 points. “I thought in the first half, he (Nolley) got a lot of looks. Some of them were contested, but some looks weren’t, so we know he’s a capable player and that he can score the ball really well. [UVA’s redshirting transfer] Sam [Hauser] was being him this whole week at practice, so guys were stopping penetration a little bit and I was able to contest a few more shots trying to make it a little more difficult for him.”
The Hokies shot just 27.1% from the field and 16% from beyond the arc against Virginia. Before today, Tech led the ACC in 3-point accuracy, making 39.4% of their attempts. The Hokies finished with 13 turnovers, five above their season average.
“Probably a combination of Virginia’s defense causing trouble and our uncharacteristic mistakes,” Virginia Tech first year head coach Mike Young said. “Eight turnovers at the half, 13 for the game. The numbers are all messed up, six assists and 13 turnovers. That’s not Virginia Tech numbers certainly. It would be less than fair not to credit Virginia and their preparedness and their team’s activity on the defensive end.”
“We were just trying to be as active as we could,” Bennett said of forcing turnovers. “We’re inexperienced and young at a lot of spots at times, as they are…If you’re watching college basketball this year, games can go unpredictable ways. The ability to just not give up the easy stuff and be as active and in a position when they try and drive and make the next play and I thought our guys did a good job…That’s the most active our hands and our feet have been and I think collectively we were solid defensively.”
The duo of Clark and Key handled things for Virginia offensively. They scored Virginia’s first 15 points of the second half, with the sophomore point guard pouring in 10 and Key adding five as the Cavaliers stretched the lead to 45-25 at the 12:56 mark. Clark and Key finished the game with 18 points apiece while Stattmann totaled a career-high 10. Diakite, who faced consistent double teams, had just six points but managed 10 rebounds. Key also had 10 rebounds and Stattmann had eight as UVA dominated the glass, 38-25, and points in the paint, 34-16.
Center Jay Huff, wing Tomas Woldetensae and point guard Chase Coleman were UVA’s primary contributors off the bench. Coleman, a true freshman walk-on, contributed three points, an assist and a steal in eight quality minutes of play. His lone steal came in the first half and resulted in a Stattmann layup to give the Hoos a 9-4 edge. Coleman and Woldentensae each knocked down 3s, two of six Cavaliers make at least one from beyond the arc. Virginia made 7-of-21 3s on the afternoon and finished 25-of-54 (46.3%) from the field.
“Guys are making shots so it feels good,” said Clark, who added six assists, four turnovers, two rebounds and a steal in 33 minutes of action. “I think guys are getting into a rhythm. But yeah, we put in the work and we will continue to play and even if we don’t make shots we will continue to work the offense. It feels good right now.”
On this day Virginia and its fans should feel good. The Cavaliers are off to a quality start in the ACC at 3-0. Next week the Hoos head to Boston College on January 7 before returning home one week from today to play Syracuse, the team UVA defeated on the road to start the season.
Notables & Quotables
– Key on playing with a splint instead of a cast: “It felt really comfortable today. It’s a lot lighter and I have more access to my palm, so catching the ball and shooting feels a lot better. With the cast there was like a little space, kind of like a ball, so catching, layups and stuff… everything was difficult with my left. Today I felt a lot more comfortable. Less padding, less tape, it felt great.”
– Norfolk native Chase Coleman on the importance of the in-state rivalry and beating Tech: “UVA is my mom’s alma mater, I just kinda grew up around liking UVA more than Tech, and I ended up here so I guess I am part of that tradition. Go Hoos.”
– Nolley blew a kiss on his first made 3, which cut UVA’s first half lead to 17-9. When Clark made a 3 to put UVA up 26-11 with 1:50 remaining in the half, he blew one as well, seemingly in the direction of the Virginia Tech bench.
– Mike Young on Clark’s performance against Tech’s tough junior point guard, Wabissa Bede: “Clark got the best of him today. In a matchup that we needed to win. Clark is very, very good and the engine for them and they put him in a number of ball screens. I’ll be interested to go back and look at it. He carved us up pretty good and some of that is Wabissa was trailing him and that’s not on him, that’s on our team. We will go back and look at it. We’re 14 games into this thing and I can’t imagine life without Wabissa Bede, he has been terrific. He didn’t have his best day; our team didn’t have its best day. Brighter days ahead.”
– Mamadi Diakite scored seven points below his average. However, his back-to-back buckets in the first half extended UVA’s lead from 17-9 to 21-9. The second basket forced Young to take a timeout. Virginia Tech would get no closer than 10 points the rest of the game.
– True freshman Casey Morsell opened the scoring with a 3 on Virginia’s first offensive possession of the game. The opening sequence of the game started with a Virginia Tech 3-point miss by PJ Horne, Morsell’s 3, and a Virginia Tech turnover. Indicative of how the night would go.
– Highlights, Courtesy of Virginia Sports TV