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UVA Basketball: Now ‘100 percent’ healthy, Ty Jerome holds the keys to Virginia’s postseason success

ty jerome uva basketballIt was one of Ty Jerome’s shorter sentences, stuck halfway through his answer to a reporter’s question. It may have just been six words, but it was the six words that put a perfect bow on what was a nearly flawless ACC championship-clinching Senior Day victory in Charlottesville.

I’m pretty much 100 percent now.”

Jerome, who suffered a back sprain in late January against NC State, spent parts of his rehab trying different techniques in the lead-up to games in order to be able to play. After missing the first game following the injury, Jerome returned a week later to face Duke and wouldn’t miss another game. He used a combination of medicine, stretching and treatment, didn’t practice fully, often shortened or even skipped on-court pregame work and sat in the padded bench chairs rather than the fold-out wooden ones during timeouts.

Now, though, those restrictions are gone.

“I am able to work out after practice in the morning now, so I am not really on a restriction in practice,” Jerome said Saturday.

It’s music to the ears of anyone involved with the Virginia program as the Cavaliers enter the ACC tournament as the No. 1 overall seed for the second consecutive year. The nation’s No. 2 team, Virginia won’t play in Charlotte until Thursday, when it takes on the winner of NC State and Clemson. And if the Cavaliers want to defend their ACC tournament crown like they did their regular-season championship — and then make waves in the NCAA Tournament — it will certainly start, and perhaps end, with the man who begins most of Virginia’s possessions: Jerome himself.

The junior point guard has been terrific over the past two weeks. After a miserable 2-for-12 shooting performance in the first meeting against Louisville, which dropped his points per game average to below 13 for the first time this season, Jerome has rounded into form offensively. Virginia’s system on both ends of the floor rarely allows for players to pile up outstanding stats, but what Jerome has done in the past four games is truly terrific:

He’s scoring 18 points per game on 25-of-41 shooting (61 percent), including 10-of-17 (58.8 percent) three-point shooting. Sprinkle in 6.5 assists per game and just 1.3 turnovers per game and Jerome is delivering a masterclass on how to play point guard in the Tony Bennett system.

But it’s not just the offensive end on which Jerome has excelled. He’s committed just four fouls in the past four games combined. On Saturday, Jerome made a crucial defensive play, poking the ball away from hard-charging Louisville forward Jordan Nwora on the fast break with the Cavaliers clinging to a four-point lead. Jerome then recovered the loose ball, and Louisville never got any closer.

A few possessions earlier, he had delivered on a contested mid-range jumper off the dribble, Virginia’s final field goal of the afternoon and two of his game-high 24 points to go along with six assists, four rebounds and just one turnover. He played 39 minutes.

“He was just so complete,” Bennett said. “I think he is getting healthier with his back, and we needed it all — the pull-up he hit and some of the passes.”

Cardinals head coach Chris Mack thought Jerome was a completely different player than the one who struggled in Louisville over two weeks ago.

“He’s got great size,” Mack said Saturday. “He’s so composed. … Some of those hook passes with a couple seconds left in the shot clock, not too many college players can make that play. You give him a lot of credit. I did think his quickness level seemed different, from my vantage point, than it was when we played them at home.”

Postseason success typically relies on great backcourt play. Villanova won last year with junior point guard Jalen Brunson, the National Player of the Year. The year before, it was North Carolina’s Joel Berry II leading the Tar Heels to a championship and earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors. Strong, experienced guard play has carried teams — and will likely continue to carry teams — through March and into April.

Jerome, now a junior like Brunson and Berry were on their championship runs, hopes to be the next in line.

“We’ve been here before,” Jerome said. “We are experienced. Our coaches preach that every possession matters. Every game and every point of the game. I guess, late in the game, it is the same mindset that we have. Every possession matters.”

He has certainly made the most of his possessions recently. Against Syracuse on Monday, he poured in 16 points and handed out 14 assists, tying a single-game program record. Virginia was able to rotate him into the middle of the Syracuse zone, and he made the Orange pay more often than not. To follow that up with a similarly outstanding game against a completely different opponent — Louisville uses pack-line concepts similar to Virginia — shows just how valuable he can be in postseason play, when adapting to different matchups on the fly is half of the battle.

No matter what team Virginia plays Thursday, expect Jerome to be ready. He’ll be in charge of making sure his teammates are in the right spots, the offense is running smoothly and, if needed, knocking down a big shot or making a key stop defensively.

“To be honest, we had higher expectations for this year than last year,” Jerome said. “We knew it was going to be a new team. We knew we were going to have to find different ways to be good. But we probably had even higher expectations and are definitely nowhere near our big goals yet.”

Story by Zach Pereles

augusta free press
augusta free press