Think you’ve knocked Virginia down? Think again.
When Jay Huff sauntered onto the KFC Yum! Center floor with 8:42 left in the first half, Virginia basketball was unrecognizable.
It was ugly, it was unlucky and, more than anything, it was not what had led the Virginia to a 3-0 record — including two road wins over Top-25 teams — over the past 12 days.
The hot-shooting backcourt tandem of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy were ice cold, and De’Andre Hunter was nowhere to be found, stuck on the bench with two fouls. The cold-shooting Louisville Cardinals, meanwhile, were on fire from deep. After a brutal 69-49 loss at Syracuse on Wednesday, the Cardinals needed some home cooking, and, boy, were they cooking. After making just six threes all game against the Orange, they had seven on their first 10 attempts, and they came against the nation’s top three-point shooting defense no less. When Jordan Nwora and Ryan McMahon combined for three consecutive threes, Tony Bennett had to do what he hates to do most: call a timeout.
In front of a raucous Louisville crowd, he turned to Huff and Mamadi Diakite, a long, athletic frontcourt pairing that rarely sees the floor together. And it paid dividends immediately, with Diakite tipping out a loose ball to Kihei Clark, who fed Huff for a thunderous alley-oop reverse slam.
The Yum! Center fans, waving their white rally towels as if their lives depended on it seconds earlier, immediately quieted, even with their team up 10.
In a stunning turn of events — not quite as stunning as Louisville’s shooting but stunning nonetheless — Huff and Diakite put the Cavaliers on the backs of their 6-foot-9 and 7-foot-1 frames, respectively. In addition to that first dunk, Huff added a dizzying array of two right-handed hooks, a tip-in and a one-handed smash that was somehow even more impressive than his first alley-oop.
It had been three weeks since someone other than Jerome, Guy or Hunter had double-digit points.
Huff got there by halftime.
“What I loved today is that he made some interior jump hooks and shots,” Bennett said of Huff. “It wasn’t just out at the three-point line or a drive. That was exciting to see, and then he used his length to block a couple shots. Those things are all there, and they’re coming. He was rewarded for the way he played today, and we were rewarded by the way he played as a team.”
And Diakite wasn’t far behind with eight first-half tallies of his own. He and Huff combined for 14 consecutive points heading into halftime.
“There are different ways to get it in the paint, and again whether it was drives or tough finishes, Mamadi and Jay gave us a lift.” Bennett said.
As good as those two were inside, Louisville was even better from the outside. The Cardinals had knocked down 10 of 16 threes and — despite making just one two-point shot — led 37-27 at half after Nwora banked in a deep three as time expired. The 27 points tied a season low for the Cavaliers.
Five days after receiving administering a halftime tongue lashing at Virginia Tech for his team being too lackadaisical with the ball, Bennett couldn’t do much but hope to find a way to make the Cardinals cool off — and get his own shooters on track.
He got the former but not the latter. Instead, what he got was one of the most impressive individual performances in recent Virginia memory. Hunter — unable to help his team just minutes earlier — rendered his opponent helpless in the second half with an 18-point outburst that showed the entirety of his vast skill set.
Early in the second stanza, Hunter made a great crossover and drove baseline for a vicious two-handed slam. Then after a Jerome layup, Hunter caught a lob and laid the ball in to give the Cavaliers six of the first eight points of the half.
“I just get a little mad,” Hunter said about missing so much of the first half. “I just want to be out there, so when I get a chance, I just want to be aggressive.”
It quickly became apparent that Louisville had no answer for the Philadelphia native.
Then again, when he’s on his game, no one does.
Hunter drilled a three — Virginia’s first of the night — a few possessions later and then followed it with a layup and through the foul. His ensuing free throw cut the deficit to 41-39, and a Huff dunk tied things at 41.
The onslaught didn’t stop. And the sign of the turning tides was apparent when Louisville head coach Chris Mack bombarded the referees with a plethora of four-letter words that earned him a technical following a questionable charge call. Just feet away, Bennett and his team remained as poised as ever as the Cavaliers, once down a dozen, began to extend its lead.
Hunter, fittingly, made the two ensuing free throws. He’d finish with a career-high 26 points — including the Cavaliers’ only two three-pointers — on just 11 shots. He added four rebounds, two steals and a block. He didn’t foul after two early whistles went against him.
“I thought De’Andre was special today,” Bennett said, using a word he reserves for only the best performances. “The way he played, that was a special performance.”
Louisville has suffered several brutal second-half collapses in the recent weeks, but this one seemingly felt different. Everything went right for the Cardinals in the first half, yet they only led by 10. Even in the second half, Jerome and Guy struggled, but the Cavaliers outscored them 37-15 — on 59.1 percent shooting — en route to the 64-52 final score.
“I think if you’re going to beat Virginia, you’ve got to hold those two down as best as you can,” Mack said. “We needed to do a better job on some of their other players.”
It’s Virginia’s eighth straight win over Louisville, this one as impressive as it gets.
“That certainly was a good step and a good sign that you have to be able to win in different ways,” Bennett said. “I thought De’Andre was the catalyst to that, but other guys [stepped] up. That was hard. If you would have told me, ‘You’re going to be 2 of 17 [from three], here are your stats and the first half, this is the way it’s going to be,’ I would’ve said, ‘We might be in for a long one tonight.’ But they toughened up and played well.”
Of all of Virginia’s terrific wins this season, this one ranks up there, because the Cavaliers debuted another facet: new scorers. After having no one outside the Jerome-Guy-Hunter trio score double digits since the Miami game three weeks ago, the Cavaliers got two — Diakite (14) and Huff (12, tying an ACC career high) — in a single game.
The Cavaliers usually need two of their “Big Three” to play well. On Saturday, only one did, but he didn’t play just well. He played phenomenally.
This year, 73 players have recorded at least 26 points on 11 shots or fewer. Only 22 have done it on the road, and just 16 have done it in a road win.
None have done it in a road win against a ranked opponent.
On Saturday, De’Andre Hunter was truly in a class of his own.
Speaking of road wins against Top-25 teams, this was Virginia’s fifth such victory. It’s a new ACC record, the most in the nation, and the most for any team since 1998-1999.
And if there were ever a team to set a record such as that, it’s this one. The Cavaliers have the high-level NBA talent to win in one-on-one situations, the complementary college stars, and, as was discovered Saturday, the depth that, on the right day, can dominate one of the nation’s better teams. Pair that with a merciless, hounding defense — Louisville shot 20 percent in the second half — and any opponent is in trouble, and any lead can be lost, even against the nation’s slowest team.
There is no panic in this Virginia team.
And for yet another year, there is no joy in Louisville when the Cavaliers come to town.
Column by Zach Pereles