The Virginia basketball team built its largest halftime lead in a month, but still had to sweat it out down the stretch against Clemson on Wednesday night. Fortunately for the Hoos, they’ve figured out how to push those close games into the win column lately. The Cavaliers claimed their third straight victory, 51-44, after fending off a second-half surge from the Tigers.
While a 12-point halftime lead did dwindle to a single possession three times in the final six minutes, however, UVA actually led wire to wire. The Hoos jumped out to a 7-0 lead that eventually reached 26-14 by intermission and then shook off two scoring droughts in the second half to preserve the win. They’ve pieced together three straight victories for the first time since starting the season 4-0.
“Their zone gave us some trouble where you do have to stick some shots,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We were spinning the wheel trying to figure out can we run this action against it, and they did a good job matching up. Sometimes you just need someone at that point to make a big shot or make a big play and Braxton [Key] did that twice and we certainly needed it.”
Indeed, someone in this case turned out to be Braxton Key.
Playing without a cast for the second straight game after spending most of December and January wearing the protection for a broken wrist, Key delivered the biggest baskets for the hosts in the closing minutes. The first came at the end of a 3:56 scoreless stretch, the second long drought of the half (the first covered 5:27), for the Hoos. At that point, Clemson had climbed back to 36-34 on an Aamir Simms 3-pointer and nearly taken the lead on back-to-back 3-point attempts from Clyde Trapp and Tevin Mack.
On the next possession, the Cavalier senior popped out to the left wing, caught a pass from Kihei Clark, and nailed a triple of his own. That pushed the margin back to five points momentarily. Key, who had just watched a jumper from the middle of the floor wrap around the rim earlier, celebrated the drought-busting shot as he ran back on defense.
The teams traded single free throws before Simms made a shot that cut the lead to 40-37. This time, Key delivered an assist instead of a basket. He drove from the top of the key, drew the defense, and fed Mamadi Diakite on the baseline for a layup. The Tigers’ John Newman III pulled his team within 42-39 one more time entering the final two minutes.
After Trapp missed a 3-point attempt to tie the game, Key had a response again. Diakite returned the assist favor this time around by driving to the middle and kicking the pass out to Key at the top where he swished the shot with 1:28 to go. That proved to be enough to put the visitors away thanks to solid free throw shooting.
Those critical plays late left Key with a sterling stat line. He tallied 19 points to lead all scorers and added 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal too. He made 4 of 6 treys and 3 of 4 free throws in the win. Those four 3’s set a career high for Key.
“We were running three game and I didn’t touch the ball much the second half so I told Kihei, ‘find me, I’ll just make a play’ and I made a couple plays for the team and got to the free throw line one time, hit a couple threes,” Key said. “I was just trying to do whatever I can to help the team win. My shot felt great tonight so I just was going with that.”
“I did not think when we were down 12 in the first half that we would have four or five chances to tie the game or take the lead,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “We had some chances, some looks, and we struggled to make those big-time threes on the road that you need to win games like this. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that. Braxton Key has not been shooting well and he made some big shots, big plays. He was probably the difference in the game.”
Diakite’s late bucket and assist contributed to the closing time cause too. He finished with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 2 blocked shots in the win. Not to be outdone, Jay Huff joined the front line fun as well. He posted his third career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, while also logging a game-best 4 blocked shots. Huff’s length bothered Simms near the basket and forced the Tiger junior to earn his 16 points through 6-of-16 shooting. Clark supported his front-line trio’s efforts with 10 assists.
Huff said that UVA assistant coach Jason Williford had challenged him to be disciplined with his shot-blocking attempts since Simms is a good inside-outside player with good shot fakes in his arsenal.
“Coach Williford motivating me with a swift kick in the butt if I was going to jump today on shot fakes. That’s more or less what he was threatening,” Huff said with a grin. “I told him I wasn’t going to jump so I guess I can tell him I didn’t which is fun. I definitely feel like I’ve gotten more comfortable but a guy like Aamir [Simms], that’s hard because he separates a lot so it’s really hard to get out there. He’s a very good player so it’s sometimes hard to judge it and sometimes we got it wrong but I think for the most part we got it right.”
Virginia’s defense did frustrate Clemson for most of the night. Until the visitors scored 18 points in the final 9:19, they had produced just 26 points in the first 30 minutes. That included a rough first half where the Tigers put up just 14 points to fall into the aforementioned 12-point hole. During that first half, Clemson shot just 28.57% (6-21) from the field and produced no free throw attempts to help offset the struggles.
In the end, the Tigers made 32.7% (17-52) of their shots with just 21.4% shooting on 3’s (6-28). Al-Amir Dawes and Mack were in double figures with Simms. Dawes had 11 points, while Mack chipped in 10. The Hoos kept things in check thanks in part to 7 blocked shots.
“It is hard. Jay Huff is huge and he is mobile. It is amazing, you think coming into a game that maybe when they switch o to him or when he gets dragged on a screen then you can take advantage but when you get him on your side he catches up, he blocks it or he catches up and you pivot to try and make a play but you have to be an outstanding player to do it,” Brownell said. “He bothered us on numerous occasions where we got the ball into a good position and we didn’t come away with the points. The hard thing is then that puts pressure on you when you do get an open shot, you feel like you need to make it. You don’t get as many as you do against other teams, so that builds into why their defense is so good.”