CHARLOTTE – If Virginia fans were feeling a little spooked by their return to the Spectrum Center, Thursday’s first half probably didn’t help ease those nerves. The Hoos, however, erased those fears with a dominant performance in the second half that propelled them past NC State, 76-56, and into the ACC Tournament Semifinals for the fifth time in the last six years.
Playing their first game at the Spectrum Center since last season’s NCAA Tournament loss, however, had reporters thinking about the UMBC upset when the Hoos returned to the scene. That’s something they’ve gotten used to this year and, in particular, this month.
“I think we’ve grown from that experience,” Cavalier coach Tony Bennett said. “We’ve owned it. We’ve talked about it. We had a great year last year and a hard loss. But it’s time to press on, and there’s not any more to say about that, and I’ll get asked and we’ll answer the question, but it’s time to press on and be as focused as we can and just get good, but certainly grow from all your experiences.”
“I think me and Jack [Salt] had an advantage coming back here for media day – and you guys don’t have to apologize for asking those questions, I’m happy to answer them,” UVA guard Kyle Guy said. “Feels good to be back right here in this press conference room where we were last time, and just like Coach said, ready to press on and move on from it, learn from it.”
The way the first half finished probably planted a few seeds of doubt among some observers. UVA led 16-6 in the early going, but trailed 29-27 at halftime after scoring 11 points in the final 13:28. It added two more minutes of scoreless basketball at the start of the second half as well. NC State, meanwhile, scored on its first shot of the second half to push ahead 31-27. Torin Dorn had a pair of free throw attempts a moment later to try to extend the advantage further, but missed both tries.
Before Dorn stepped to the line, however, a fairly quiet Spectrum Center heard a lonesome voice near the end with Virginia’s bench cry out: “Come on, Virginia get it together!” Hoo fans didn’t have to wait long for that exact thing to happen. Less than 30 seconds later, Jack Salt tracked down an offensive rebound, drove to the baseline, and scored on a reverse layup while being fouled. Salt converted the free throw – the first of three successful and-one plays for the senior in the second half – and that seemed to spark the Cavaliers.
Over the next nine minutes, UVA uncorked a 30-10 scoring surge that all but buried the upset hopes of the Wolfpack. The lead never dipped below 14 points the rest of the way as the Hoos ran away to the 20-point victory.
“The impact was big,” Bennett said of Salt’s pair of three-point plays early in the second half. “You know, there’s momentum. We needed those. And it was, again, a possession by possession game the way it was going, so I don’t remember what those plays either got us in the lead or put us up by, but those are just those X factor plays, again, an offensive rebound or an and-one or a four-point play, so I think they were important.”
Salt’s three-point play eventually led to 8 points for the senior during that stretch, but two of UVA’s other big weapons got going then too. Guy and De’Andre Hunter poured in 22 points to truly ignite the offense and NC State didn’t have an answer.
Guy, in particular, unleashed a flame-thrower performance all afternoon. The reigning ACC Tournament MVP torched the nets for 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go with 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Guy made 7 of 9 triples, including one that turned into a four-point play during that 30-10 outburst.
Hunter, meanwhile, started slowly but recovered for another big game. He made just 1 of 4 shots and scored only 3 points in the first half, but then hit 2 of 3 shots and 7 of 8 free throws in the second half. He finished with 16 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists.
That trio made up for a tough shooting night for Ty Jerome, who hit just 1 of 11 attempts for 2 points. Jerome, however, shifted masterfully into a distributor role in this contest. He dished out 10 assists with 8 of those helpers coming after halftime. He repeatedly picked out the right pass whether that was a look down low or a cross-court pass for an open shot.
Salt’s presence for 16 second half minutes also seemed to slow down NC State’s best weapon from the first half. Derek Funderburk helped push the Wolfpack to their halftime lead with 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting and 4-of-5 shooting at the free throw line. Funderburk made just 1 of 2 shots with no free throws in the second half to finish with 12 points, though.
Hunter, meanwhile, helped cool off Markell Johnson when it looked like he might be getting comfortable after intermission. Johnson led his team with 13 points, but Hunter made most of Johnson’s second half shots have to come over the top of the defense.
“Well, we thought we were getting some good shots offensively in the first half,” Bennett said. “We had a couple careless turnovers and a shot-clock violation. We said, continue to tighten up the defense but take the shots when they’re there, and just run your offense hard, and we’re in – this is tournament basketball. These are possession by possession games, and there’s a physicality that’s there, so we just kept plugging.”
Virginia’s win sets up another meeting with Florida State, who needed overtime to take down Virginia Tech in the second game Thursday. The Hoos opened ACC play with a home win against the Seminoles.