Sometimes in practices, basketball coaches use a score-stop-score drill where the team must string together that sequence to win. On Saturday in its ACC opener, the Virginia basketball team needed a stop-stop-stop version to escape Boston College, 59-58.
Though it never trailed in the final 27 minutes, UVA found itself clinging to that one-point margin in the final seconds. That’s when the program’s calling card – tough and focused defense – sealed the win. Three times.
First, Isaiah Wilkins rotated over and swatted Ky Bowman’s driving shot attempt out of bounds as Devon Hall moved away from contact to avoid a foul call. Next, Wilkins stole the next inbounds pass only to see that play erased by an obscure timing rule due to an error where the clock started too early. Finally, after that rule gave BC one final chance at a scoring play, Jack Salt drew an offensive foul call on Nik Popovic after a fake handoff strategy to cap off the victory.
“The first inbound play, Davidson actually runs something like it, and we did a good job with it, we were good on the ball. And the second one, I think they were looking for something up at the top and then it was a fake handoff and keep and they got the guy on the offensive foul. And he missed the shot. I thought maybe we would have to play a third time, to see if three times was the charm,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said smiling. “But they were very different, one was look for the lob and it was a good one. I just said to our guys, we have to win it with our defense. Sometimes when you get in those spots, should we switch everything, should we do things that we do sometimes work on, but our guys said, let’s win it how we are going to win it, the way we always play. They did the job.”
That Wilkins was heavily involved in the final defensive stands is hardly surprising. The senior anticipates and aggravates opponents on a nightly basis with that part of his game. In the end, he finished with eight points, a career-high 14 rebounds, four blocked shots, two assists, and one steal. He passed Steve Castellan (108) and Assane Sene (108) and is now sixth all-time in program history with 110 blocked shots.
The key block came just before the bizarre timing sequence that ended the game. Boston College turned back to one of its bread-and-butter concepts to try to get the go-ahead bucket or a free throw attempt. The strategy features a guard taking a handoff at full speed to get a downhill drive toward the rim. It puts a lot of pressure on the defense to react to the speed of the play in time.
In this case, Bowman took the ball along the left side and drove hard down the lane while leaning heavily into Hall’s space. Hall, the Hoos’ other defensive stalwart, deftly moved away from the contact to prevent a one-and-one free throw attempt for Bowman, but that did clear Bowman’s vision at the rim. Waiting in the paint, however, Wilkins calmly timed his help and elevated to block the ball before scrambling to try to save it inbounds. He had blocked Bowman on a similar drive to the other side of the floor in the first half.
”When they catch the ball, they are sprinting downhill, which is different than a lot of teams,” Wilkins said. “Once they get there, the guards do a good job of staying in front of them when they can. I tell them run through a little bit or move out of my way so I can go block it and time it up. It was working for me today.”
With Hall leading the charge against Bowman for much of the game, the Hoos held him to a season-low five points on 2-of-10 shooting. He entered the contest averaging 16.8 points. In fact, Virginia held the majority of BC’s short six-man rotation in check by allowing 42.3% shooting for the game.
Only Jerome Robinson and Jordan Chatman kept the Eagles within striking distance for the frantic final seconds. Robinson poured in 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting to go with six rebounds, one assist, and one blocked shot. Chatman added 18 on 5-of-7 shooting. Robinson, in particular, made a handful of tough shots over the defense, including a 3-pointer with 44 seconds to go to set up the one-point finish.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, it had a Jerome of its own lighting up the scoreboard too. Sophomore guard Ty Jerome torched Boston College for a career-high 31 points in a career-high 37 minutes. That included UVA’s final eight points of the game on two triples and a pair of free throws. He added five rebounds, two assists, and two steals too.
BC coach Jim Christian said Jerome really hurt his team’s chances by making late shot clock buckets.
“Late clock. I mean he had 31 points and maybe 20 of them came from late clock, the shot clock was at five or six,” Christian said. “We did a bad job at containing him. [Kyle] Guy is such an issue because you have to be on him so tight coming off of all the screens, that maybe [Jerome] had some space to drive and took advantage of it. He played a great game.”
Jerome had it going almost immediately. He scored his first bucket on a drive to the rim just 2:10 into the game and added a second driving score less than a minute later. He also assisted on a dunk for Jack Salt before the first media timeout. In the second half, he had answers for every BC surge. He again made a layup just 1:15 into the half, but he saved the real responses for later. Jerome made the first of four second-half 3-pointers when Boston College cut the lead to two points at 36-34. The next one came when the Eagles pulled to 42-41. The game stood tied at 45 when Jerome hit a running jumper. Then at 51-51, he nailed another 3-pointer to keep the Hoos in charge. The final one came with the UVA lead at 54-53.
With Hall struggling on offense – he missed all six shot attempts and his only point came on a free throw, but he was even 1-3 at the line with one of those misses being the front end of a one-and-one in the final 15 seconds – Jerome’s day was much needed. Guy did put in 11 points thanks to a trio of triples, while Wilkins and Salt added 14 points combined. Still with just two bench points on a Nigel Johnson jumper, Virginia needed every drop of Jerome’s 31 points.
That’s the most point for a Cavalier in a single game since Joe Harris bombed Duke in the 2012-13 season. Harris’ 36 points that night represented the last time a Virginia player cracked the 30-point barrier.
“He sensed what we needed and he made the big shots. We had plenty of opportunities, missed some close-up ones and then they hit some tough shots and made it a one possession game,” Bennett said. “He sometimes takes those long shots and some people are like ‘oh’ but they were going in today and we needed it. He sensed it. One of his greatest attributes is his feel and mind for the game and I think he just knew it.”
Something else Jerome knew is that Saturday’s victory gave Coach Bennett his 200th win at Virginia. In Bennett’s nine seasons, UVA has won every ACC opener and it owns a 120-24 record at the John Paul Jones Arena in his tenure.
”I’m happy for him and I’m so happy that we were able to do it for him today,” Jerome said.