With the calendar already reading March, fans around college basketball already pondering the pending madness, and national reporters on hand from the New York Times and The Athletic, Virginia tried to stay in the moment Saturday. The Cavaliers’ mission was simple: send senior Jack Salt out on a high note in his final home game and claim a share of the ACC Regular Season Championship. Anything beyond that could wait.
UVA accomplished both at the John Paul Jones Arena as it erased a second half deficit against Louisville for the second time this season and grabbed a 73-68 victory in front of an appreciative crowd at the John Paul Jones Arena. The win gave the Hoos a share of the league’s regular season title for the fourth time in the last six years and locked up the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament as well. It also sent Salt out of the JPJ with a trophy in hand.
“We talked about that before the game,” Cavalier guard Ty Jerome said. “We didn’t talk about the title. We talked about sending him off the right way because of all that he has done for this program, all he has done for each of us and who he is as a person.”
“It was for Jack,” Virginia’s Kyle Guy said. “He’s done so much for this program and everyone in it. Also, we have had a great season. It’s not easy to win four regular season titles. It was just joy.”
The Cardinals made UVA earn its coronation. They shot a higher overall percentage (41.1% to 40.4%), took the rebounding battle (40-31), and placed four players in double figures (Jordan Nwora 19, Malik Williams 12, Dwayne Sutton 10, Christen Cunningham 10) in an effort to pull off the upset.
The visitors also upped the pressure on the Hoos by pushing out to a 7-point lead early in the second half. They bridged the halves with a 20-4 run that erased a nine-point deficit in the final 1:47 before intermission and grew the lead to 47-40 with 16:16 to go. The back end of that flurry finished with three consecutive 3-pointers from Nwora, Sutton, and Williams as Louisville had started to look like the team that hit 10 triples in the first half of the first meeting between the teams.
Virginia had an answer and it was swift.
Over the next 1:24, the hosts surged to a tie with a 3-pointer from Guy, a layup from Jerome, and a steal-dunk sequence from Mamadi Diakite. When Louisville grew the lead back to six points before the 10:00 mark, the Cavaliers clawed back again. This time, Jay Huff hit a 3-pointer and Guy scored in the paint on an offensive rebound to stop the initial slide. Minutes later, Guy and Braxton Key knocked down back-to-back 3’s in the span of 40 seconds to give Virginia the lead again. Those two shots started a 14-3 run that included another Huff triple as well and UVA took care business down the stretch.
Guy finished with 13 points and a team-high 6 rebounds. Huff scored 9 points all on 3’s to go with 2 blocked shots and a steal, while Key added 9 points and 5 rebounds. De’Andre Hunter also scored 9 points with 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 blocked shot, and 1 steal. Louisville hassled Guy and Hunter into 7-of-24 shooting on the day.
“For Louisville, first congrats to how hard and well they played. That was a physical game,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “The possessions were hard, they made some tough contested shots, they attacked us and they made it hard for us. To be in a tough, physical game when [De’Andre Hunter] isn’t scoring like he typically does, we had to come out. I thought Ty Jerome was terrific, Kyle Guy, what Jay Huff did coming off the bench with those threes, and then Braxton Key making the big three and grabbing some rebounds. We needed all those things. We needed different guys at different times in those settings in a physical game.”
Indeed, Jerome put together a sterling effort in the win. He carried the scoring load with 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting, which included a trio of treys. He also added 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals in a stat-stuffing line. Many of those assists came from high ball screen sets that let the point guard make decisions.
Jerome was in the thick of the game’s decisive run in the final eight minutes too. He assisted on Guy’s run-starting 3-pointer and Huff’s trey in the run too. He made two free throws to give UVA the lead for good, made another one in the final moments, and scored another bucket as well. Jerome also notched a steal after missing a 3-pointer that looked like it was going to turn into a transition basket for Nwora that could have made it a two-point game again.
“I know that he was battling some back tightness, sitting out some practices and games. I don’t know if that affected him [at our place], but I told our staff at halftime he looked a lot quicker today,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “He’s got great size. He’s so composed. His ability to read a ball screen. Some of those hook passes with a couple seconds left in the shot clock, not too many college players can make that play. You give him a lot of credit. I did think his quickness level seemed different from my vantage point than it was when we played them at home.”
“After I shot so badly at their place, I was really excited to play them again,” said Jerome, who scored 4 points while missing 10 shots in the first meeting. “They are a great defensive team and a really good team overall too. My back has been getting better and better. I’m pretty much 100 percent now, so I am able to work out after practice in the morning now, so I am not really on a restriction in practice.”
That closing stretch sewed up another ACC Regular Season Championship, which North Carolina shared thanks to its win against Duke later in the day. That’s the ninth league crown for the Hoos and the fourth in the last six years. They also secured the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament for the fourth time since 2014 and just the fifth time since 1954.
The Cavaliers celebrated the occasion by cutting down the nets, another sign of being thankful for the present before worrying about the future single elimination tournaments ahead.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say weird because you can’t take this for granted,” said Jerome when asked it was weird to cut down nets today when so many other goals are still ahead. “Like Coach Bennett said, this is over an 18-game stretch and to only lose two games, you can’t take that for granted. You’ve got to be really thankful for that. But we’ve got to stay humble and we have to know what we’re still trying to do. So it’s not a weird feeling. Honestly, we feel extremely grateful. All the hard work paid off in the regular season. Now, we’ve just got to get back in the gym, work even harder, and try to get into an extra gear going forward.”