Exams at the University of Virginia begin Monday, but the UVA men’s basketball team got a test a day early. VCU came to Charlottesville with its stingy defense in tow and battled wire to wire before a little cramming at the end slid the outcome in the No. 4 Cavaliers’ favor, 57-49.
Virginia finished the game on a 19-7 run in the final 6:30 minutes, which started as a 15-2 burst that flipped a five-point deficit into an eight-point lead with 2:15 to play. The Hoos head into the official start of the exam break with a 9-0 record for the first time since 2014-15.
“Everyone made timely plays that all factored in,” UVA guard Ty Jerome said. “Me getting looks, right after I hit a three, Kihei [Clark] got the 10-second call so everyone just made timely plays and that was a real gritty win.”
Indeed, the decisive run late in the game featured big moments from multiple sources. No one was more in the middle of it all than Jerome, though.
Shortly after the Rams pushed their lead to 43-38 on a strong drive from Vince Williams, Jerome jumpstarted the rally with a curl and drive into the paint where he finished against shot blocker Marcus Santos-Silva. On the next offensive possession, Jerome stepped into a deep 3-pointer off a Jack Salt screen to tie the game at 43. The next time, Jerome pump-faked at the top of the key and drove down the paint to set up Salt for a dunk attempt where the was fouled. Salt made a free throw to give UVA the lead.
After VCU answered to see-saw the lead back in its favor, Jerome popped free on another off-ball screen on the opposite side of the floor than before, but it got the same result. He swished that one too to cap off a personal eight-point flurry in the course of 2:15 on the game clock and the Hoos never trailed again. Jerome finished with 14 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals.
“There he goes again,” Virginia guard Kyle Guy said of his reaction to those shots from Jerome. “Like he said, everyone was making timely plays down the stretch. He is the captain and one of the better players on our team, I always have faith in him.”
Several other key plays were sandwiched around Jerome’s scoring spree and followed in the final minutes too. As Jerome mentioned, Clark followed the first 3-pointer with dogged on-ball defense in the backcourt. That prevented VCU from getting the ball across halfcourt in time as 10 seconds counted off the clock. That turnover led to Salt’s free throw on the next possession.
Coach Bennett jumped into the air and then stepped out on the floor to slap five with Clark after the whistle. He also mentioned that Clark played the game with a cast on his left wrist due to a hairline fracture suffered during the Morgan State game. He will have surgery Monday and a timetable for his return is yet to be determined. Clark had 9 points and 4 assists in the victory.
“He about made me jump out of my shoes when he got that 10-second call,” Bennett said. “My staff said ‘I’ve never seen a guy do that as an individual defender’ and I said ‘I have, Muggsy Bogues.’ I played with him and he used to do that to people. I thought that was terrific. … Evans is a terrific player for them. He just sets the D. And how can you not get excited if you’re behind that defensively? He played with great heart.”
Other key plays peppered the stretch run too. Near the start of the key surge, Salt shut down a VCU possession that already had featured an offensive rebound with a powerful defensive board. He made the free throw off of Jerome’s pass as well. On Jerome’s second 3-pointer, Guy got taken down while cutting around a Salt screen and that led to a simultaneous foul call as officials ruled that Jerome’s shot counted. Guy made both of the one-and-one free throws to make that a five-point possession that turned a one-point deficit into a 49-45 lead. Guy led the Hoos with 15 points to go with 6 rebounds and 1 assist.
Also contributing to the game-clinching plays, Mamadi Diakite caught a Jerome pass and drove into the paint to draw a foul. He made both free throws. Clark stripped a dribble drive and dove on a loose ball that led to a jumpball that gave the ball back to the Hoos via the arrow. De’Andre Hunter got fouled on an offensive rebound attempt and made two free throws too. Plus, Clark and Jerome each had a big defensive rebound that helped spark the 15-2 burst that essentially decided the winner.
In Hunter’s case, that helped him get to 9 points on an otherwise frustrating day. Diakite’s showing, on the other hand, erased what had been a string of inconsistent outings. He logged 22 minutes with only one foul and helped disrupt VCU’s offense along the way. He added 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 blocked shot. All of those points came after intermission, including back-to-back buckets to break a 3:29 drought to open the half.
“Mamadi, I was so happy for him,” Bennett said. “He’s been a little inconsistent. … I think he’s continuing to improve. … He had two good days of practice. He simplified and he just played hard. I said Mamadi, ‘You know enough, just play hard and don’t worry about anything else.’ His ability to catch and finish on a post move or quick pocket pass and make his free throws and then I liked him defensively today. He was locked in. … I thought he gave us a tremendous lift.”
The Cavaliers needed those various plays down the stretch thanks to a miserable shooting day that plagued both teams. Each shot just 29.5% from the field. UVA, in fact, made just 5 of 21 attempts in the second half for a rough 23.8% stat. Diakite’s two buckets early in the half and Jerome’s three shots during that quick flurry were it in that regard. The Rams didn’t fare much better with an 8 of 34 second half that landed at 23.5%.
That’s pretty much par for the course with VCU this season. The Rams entered the game ranked No. 6 nationally in shooting percentage defense with opponents hitting at just a 36.4% clip, a number that dropped after UVA’s shooting day. Virginia hadn’t been as stingy as some years, allowing 40.1% shooting before the game, but stepped up to the challenge in the defensive showdown.
The Hoos made up for some of their struggled by going 26 of 30 at the free throw line, while the Rams covered up the misses with 15 offensive rebounds and 11 second chance points. The plays down the stretch ultimately made the difference.
“They made the looks tough,” Bennett said. “They really tagged Kyle hard. They were physical. Last year, they were a little different how they guarded him, they shortcut the screens more and this time they locked in. They were very physical and on there. I’m not saying they were fouling, I’m just saying they were physical. So you really had to set up your cuts and he had to work to get off screens. … You had to move, move, soften them, get a little separation, and then get open and mix in some attacking off the bounce.”