The Virginia basketball team’s Wednesday night game occurred in a mostly empty arena, outside of a prime time slot, on a still young channel so it was far from the glamour of a showdown with the nation’s No. 1 team on national television a few days prior. That may have been exactly what the Hoos needed to work back toward their gritty and determined roots.
While the performance still showed a work in progress, UVA moved closer to its usual identity in a 66-57 win against Notre Dame. The Cavaliers came up with some timely stops, including a good night for 3-point defense, and create more assists than turnovers to get the conference victory. Tony Bennett remained undefeated in ACC openers at 12-0 with the road win.
“In the postgame I talked about weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down,” Bennett said. “Our young guys, they don’t know what a weeble wobble is but all of us do. I think we got wobbling a few times, you got to right the ship and get back up. … But enough good plays defensively and offensively. Still some breakdowns but hopefully we’ll keep getting better. It was kind of everyone chipping in and that’s how it’ll have to be with this team and then we got to chip in and help each other defensively and offensively.”
Virginia’s experienced core asserted themselves to set the tone for the balanced effort.
Junior guard Kihei Clark scored 19 points for the second straight game to lead the way. He made 7 of 12 shots (58.3%) and 2 of 4 3-pointers (50%) to get those points, though he did hit just 3 of 6 free throws. He made a critical shot at the 9:12 mark of the second half when ND cut the lead to a single point too.
Clark also dished out 5 assists with 0 turnovers. Those numbers for scoring, shooting percentage, assists, and turnovers matched or set season highs. Following a game with 6 turnovers against the Zags, it’s exactly the kind of outing the Wahoos needed from the veteran point guard. It was similar to many of the games Clark put together down the stretch last season when the team was stringing together conference wins.
“Last year a lot was asked of him and early, it was a lot,” Bennett said. “I remember we put a lot on his plate, and he battled and struggled through some hard games with some turnovers. I think that prepared him for more situations like this, and he showed up and he was tough. I told him a couple times he let [Prentiss] Hubb get by him at crucial times, so I hold him in high account. But you look at Hubb’s stat line and he did a pretty good job on for the most part, guarding the ball. He scored, banged a couple threes, some nice drives.”
Clark wasn’t the only experienced player making plays. Fifth-year seniors Jay Huff and Sam Hauser delivered solid performances as well.
Huff got things going immediately for the Hoos when he drove through an open alley in the defense and dunked with one hand. After the Irish tied the game, Huff scored again with a lefty hook to the baseline and the visitors never trailed again. He also had an alley-oop slam on the back end of a pressbreak action in the first three minutes.
Despite some second half foul trouble, Huff posted 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting with both misses coming from 3-point range where he was 1-3. He added 5 rebounds and 1 blocked shot to his stat line as well.
Hauser, meanwhile, recorded the first double-double of his Cavalier career (he had 7 at Marquette) with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He also had 4 assists and just 1 turnover. While he struggled a little bit shooting where he went 5-13 (3-8 on 3’s), Hauser delivered two key buckets among some big plays down the stretch.
The first of those plays came with 7:58 remaining when Hauser made a 3-pointer just after the Irish had cut the lead to one point again at 47-46. Two rebounds were part of that story next. Hauser grabbed a defensive rebound with 4:00 to go and an offensive rebound with 1:50 to go. That O-Board set up his big basket because 10 seconds later, he caught a pass circling toward the top of the key and canned the jumper to put the game away for good as Virginia’s lead went from 60-55 to 63-55 on that shot.
“Obviously I’ve missed some open shots and it’s frustrating but you just got to stick with it and just shoot like the next one is going to go down and that is kind of what my mentality was and it went down and came at a crucial time in the game,” Hauser said. “I’m going to stay with it, I know they’re going to fall. Every shot felt good tonight but just got to stay after it.”
Junior Trey Murphy III didn’t hit double figures with 5 points , but his 3-pointer with 4:24 remaining made it a two-possession game for good. Justin McKoy and Casey Morsell added 6 points each, while Kadin Shedrick had one bucket to round out the scoring. Overall, Virginia shot 46.6% overall and 30.8% from 3-point range.
That balanced attack was enough to cancel out two big scoring numbers for Notre Dame.
Nate Laszewski poured in 28 points on 8-11 shooting overall, 4-7 shooting from 3-point range, and 8-10 shooting at the free throw line. He added 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal too. With Laszewski doing some damage from outside, Juwan Durham provided additional inside scoring punch. He tallied 19 points on 7-11 shooting with 5-7 shooting at the free throw line too. Durham was the recipient of several easy buckets on the back end of ball screen actions for the Irish.
Overall, the Cavaliers allowed 40% shooting, but that jumped to 47.8% shooting in the second half, a piece of the puzzle that continues to be an issue. Still, UVA held Notre Dame to 25% shooting from 3-point range so other than Laszewski, it was a cold perimeter shooting night for the hosts. They entered the game at 40.9%, good enough for 14th nationally so shutting off that scoring valve was critical.
The Wahoos also held Laszewski without a basket in the final 5 minutes (he had 2 free throws in the final minute), while Durham scored just once in that time span. That timely defense combined with a better start on that end was enough to get the job done defensively.
“Yeah, we definitely made a step in the right direction,” Hauser said. “Gonzaga really exposed us on that end of the floor. That didn’t leave a good taste in our mouth, so we took that personally and it showed the night. We played pretty well on the defensive end. Obviously there’s still some things to clean up, but definitely improvement for sure.”