Ty Jerome’s health — not another ugly win — is the most important thing for Virginia right now

ty jerome uvaBy Zach Pereles

Under 10 minutes remained in Virginia’s contest against Miami on Saturday when the frustration finally boiled over.

Tony Bennett — usually reluctant to intervene — had called timeouts. He had tried to let his players work it out. He had tried different lineups.

But now, faced with one of basketball’s simplest plays — an inbounds pass — the No. 3 Cavaliers couldn’t figure out what to do. Initially, no one walked over to the referee holding the ball. Then Kyle Guy jogged over, clearly exasperated and yelling at Kihei Clark. Finally, Clark came over to get the ball in play.

On the other side of the court, Ty Jerome, nursing a back injury, sat in a jumpsuit and slippers, unable to do anything to help his anguished teammates. Virginia eventually got the ball in, but the possession ended in a desperate, off-balance shot from Clark that had no chance of going in.

It was that kind of an afternoon for Virginia, which fended off lowly Miami 56-46 at John Paul Jones Arena, the fourth straight win for Bennett’s team. The Cavaliers did enough to win, but it’s clear that this game had more to do with who wasn’t playing than who was.

“We had a hard time finding the balance of running our stuff hard [and] trusting the offense to produce a quality shot to being where we [had to] to force the action,” Bennett said. “We certainly were fumbling around and struggling at times.”

Virginia looked discombobulated against a Hurricanes team that hasn’t been anything special defensively. Several Cavaliers missed good looks right at the rim inside the game’s first few minutes. The hosts shot just 39.3 percent from the floor and made just 8 of their 14 shots at the rim in the first half.

“Early on we got some good looks out of our ball-screen offense, and we just missed a lot of shots,” Bennett said.

Though Virginia improved shooting the ball in the second half (48.5 percent from the floor), it could never string together a solid run offensively. The hosts scored on back-to-back possessions just three times in the second half.

The argument for Jerome as Virginia’s most valuable player only grew as he watched from the bench. Clark, making his first career start, tied his career high in rebounds (five) and assists (six) and also buried two three-pointers, but he turned the ball over six times.

Jerome, on the other hand, has made 58 career starts and had just one game with six turnovers.

On several occasions, Clark’s passes to Jack Salt were either behind the big man, or they caught him off guard. When the two finally connected for a Salt dunk in the late second half, it was the closest semblance Virginia had to its typical offense all day.

“[Kihei] made some good plays at times, and at times he certainly looked like a first year,” Bennett said.

After a second straight rough offensive showing with Jerome dealing with injury, two things are apparent: If there’s any team that could use a break, it’s Virginia. And if any team could use its All-ACC point guard back and healthy, it’s Virginia.

Guy, admitting it felt “a little off” missing his backcourt mate for the first time in his career, shot just 4 of 15 overall and made just a pair of threes on eight attempts as the Hurricanes were able to key in on him as the Cavaliers’ primary deep threat. De’Andre Hunter, who is averaging roughly one turnover per game, has six in his last two contests. They played 38 and 39 minutes, respectively, and Clark logged a career-high 37 as Virginia’s backcourt rotation was reduced to essentially three players. Mamadi Diakite also set a career mark with 31 minutes.

The Cavaliers have had back-to-back games with at least 14 turnovers for the first time in nearly two years. It’s the first time in the Bennett era that they’ve won both games.

“We were unsound the last two games…,” Bennett said. “And of course Ty helps us with that, and his absence certainly showed.”

Bennett didn’t have much to say about Jerome’s status other than he is “going in the right direction.”

In the end, Virginia made enough plays to win. Diakite scored 11 points — his third double-digit effort in his last four games — to go along with six rebounds, three blocks and a team-best plus-14. Hunter scored 14 points to pace the Cavaliers but needed 13 shots to do so.

But most of the plays — and luck — came on the defensive end. Miami shot just 34 percent from the floor and 19 percent from three, including 1 for 9 in the second half. Dejan Vasiljevic, who had made a three-pointer in 20 consecutive ACC contests, missed all three of his attempts. If there’s a good thing to be said about Saturday’s contest, it’s that the defensive effort never waned despite the offensive struggles, much like the contest against NC State five days earlier.

“We made some defensive plays to block some shots and bother some things, and they missed an awful lot of wide-open looks,” Bennett said. “Let’s keep it real in that regard.”

The next thing on the docket for the weary Cavaliers is rest and get healthy. They have a week to prepare for a rematch with Duke — the only team to beat them this season. The extended time off gives the Cavaliers a less strenuous practice schedule, too: They’ll take the next two days off.

“It’s huge,” Salt said. “We’re having tomorrow and Monday off, so [it allows] guys to get their bodies right and minds right, because I feel like we’ve been grinding a little bit lately. … [In] today’s game and also the N.C. State game, we did a lot of things that were uncharacteristic. We definitely need some time to focus and get back on track.”

It will be especially huge for Jerome. As the past five days have shown, this Virginia team isn’t the same without him.

 
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