BROOKLYN – For the second straight night at the Barclays Center, Virginia exchanged early blows with an opponent, took control of the scoreboard in the first half stretch, and then turned away every attempt at a comeback in the second half. This time, Clemson took the loss against the top-seeded Cavaliers, falling 64-58 in the ACC Tournament Semifinals on Friday.
UVA reached 30 wins for the third time in five years and earned a trip to the ACC Tournament final for the third time under coach Tony Bennett as well.
“This is a complete group,” Bennett said. “Their unity is as good as any as I’ve ever coached, and those other teams had very good unity. I think there’s some balance. We have good size, and they’re relentless the way they play, and that’s the way we have to play to be good. They probably could play a lot of ways, but I think this way fits this group of guys, and they have bought in and embraced it in a way that I’m thankful to have, and they’ve been a joy to coach.”
Midway through the first half, it didn’t look like there would be a repeat script for the Hoos. They fell behind by seven points at 20-13 as they endured a scoring drought of 6:11. The Tigers built that advantage with an 8-0 run that featured a handful of out-of-character plays for the Cavaliers.
David Skara scored an and-one three-point play against unsettled defense in transition, Marcquise Reed got to the free throw line in what became a theme for the night, and then Shelton Mitchell hit a pull-up jumper off a turnover right at halfcourt by UVA. Gabe Devoe capped that surge with a little hesitation dribble that got him a straight-line drive layup.
During that same span, Virginia missed two shots in the post and four jumpers as Clemson’s defense made it tough to create openings between some switches and sagging help defenders from the weak side. Mamadi Diakite finally snapped the streak when he drove into a jump hook from the left wing with 7:22 to go. That helped spark a 19-3 outburst to close the half for the Hoos.
The Tigers tried to stop the onslaught with two timeouts in the final seven minutes, both following huge momentum-building plays from Kyle Guy. At the 6:10 mark, De’Andre Hunter notched a steal and then tossed the ball ahead to Guy for a two-handed dunk that easily topped his late-game effort against Louisville and tied the game at 20-20. Guy had caught a little bit of ribbing from his teammates for that fingertips on the rim finish against the Cardinals so he made this one a no-doubter. Later, Guy fired up the fans in his more traditional way with a 3-point bomb that made it 29-20.
Neither timeout worked and Guy finished off the half with another triple with 41 seconds remaining.
“They were aggressive,” Bennett said. “They’re a good team, and I think Brad [Brownell] has done a terrific job without Grantham. And the first time we played them was the very first game they were without [Donte] Grantham, and I think now they’re comfortable in their roles, and their roles are very aggressive off the dribble. They spread the floor and attacked us. We were on the edge with our transition D and Thomas did a heck of a job on the interior. They were the aggressors. We were kind of a little on our heels, not for a lack of effort, but then I thought the guys really buckled down. …. And they’re not going to make every shot, so we bothered some shots, and then some of our shots started falling.”
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While the Hoos got going on offense, the defense helped create the depth of the run. Virginia held Clemson without a field goal over the final 9:32 of the first half as its only points came off of three free throws from Mitchell at the 1:07 mark. During that span, the Tigers committed three turnovers and UVA forced them into mostly contested shots, some from well outside the paint, as well.
That snapshot, of course, represented the formula the Cavaliers like to use to win games. In the end, Clemson shot 34.% for the game (17-49) and just 20% from 3-point range (5-25). The No. 4 seed also gave up 13 turnovers, mostly on UVA take-aways. The Wahoos created 11 steals in the game and scored 14 points off of those turnovers. The best offense for CU proved to be at the free throw line where it made 19 of 23 attempts.
Mitchell led all scorers with 18 points, while Elijah Thomas added 15 points and seven rebounds. Devoe finished with eight points. UVA held Reed, the team’s leading scorer at 16.2 points per game, to just six on 2-of-14 shooting.
“They have good players. They have a very good system. Extremely well-coached,” Brownell said. “They’re extremely big, long and athletic. I don’t think people realize – like they’re bigger than we are at almost every position. Every position you look at their guys and look at our guys, a couple inches difference, five to ten pounds, strength. And that’s true of a lot of teams that they play against. Not all but a lot. You combine all those factors, they’re going to be difficult to play against. It’s Tony’s hallmark. It’s what they do, and obviously if you don’t do that, you don’t play. You know, certainly a lot of credit for the way they do things.”
After trailing by nine points at intermission, Clemson battled back numerous times in the second half. The Tigers cut the lead to four within four minutes, to five with 7:23 to go after falling behind by as many as 14 points again, and then to four one more time with 13 seconds left after the deficit reach as many as nine points again.
Every time, however, Virginia answered. Sometimes a familiar source provided the response. Sometimes someone a little less expected did.
At 15:55, Diakite stopped an early Clemson surge much like he did against Louisville the night before with a short shot in the post. He followed that with back-to-back dunks that lit the fuse on a 10-0 run. Later when the Tigers clawed back to a five-point margin, Jack Salt stepped to the forefront with back-to-back buckets. The first came on a post move for a right-handed hook off the glass late in the shot clock. The second came when he caught a low bounce pass from Ty Jerome and swished a short and quick hook.
UVA’s main three post players combined for 22 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Diakite led the way with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting, while Salt chipped in eight points on 4-of-5 shooting with eight rebounds. Wilkins had four points and five boards.
“Any time when we got interior scoring, Jack gave us, and Mamadi, both today, … then it loosens it up for our perimeter guys,” Bennett said. “But for sure interior scoring, inside out balancing it is big. And I’m so happy to see both of those guys step up in a real tough, hard-fought game.”
Virginia placed two other guys in double digits too. Guy hit 50% shooting for the second straight night and finished with a team-high 15 points with five rebounds and two assists. Devon Hall had 10 points and matched his season high with three steals. Jerome, meanwhile, scored six points but dished out a career-high 10 assists to go with three steals. Hunter had nine points and four boards.
Tallying it all up, it was another balanced effort. That’s how these Hoos have won 30 games and now they’ll get a shot at the season sweep in the ACC. Virginia won the ACC Regular Season Championship with a 17-1 record. Saturday’s final will give the program a shot at its third tourney title as well.
“I think at this time of the year and at this stage, everyone is really good, so if it’s Duke, UNC, Clemson, whoever it is, it’s going to be a good game,” Jerome said.