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Virginia 85, Clemson 50: This was the UVA team you thought you’d see

jay huff uva clemson
Jay Huff had 12 points and a career-high five assists in Virginia’s 85-50 win at Clemson. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Clemson hit its first shot, didn’t make its next for 12 minutes, trailed Virginia 29-5 with five minutes to go in the first half, and … it got worse.

The UVA team that beat the #12 Tigers 85-50 in Littlejohn on Saturday was the one that you thought you were going to see this season.

Just took a while.

“We’re learning about our team, we’re growing, we’re becoming steadier. I know we have guys that are older in age, but we’ve got three guys that have not played in a Virginia basketball uniform for a game, so there’s a newness there that I think, an identity has to be formed,” coach Tony Bennett said.

Virginia (9-2, 5-0 ACC) got back to its foundational principles. Bennett had adjusted out of key Pack Line precepts the past couple of weeks – switching screens instead of hard hedging, to account for the lack of experience of transfers Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy III in the defense.

Perhaps Clemson coach Brad Brownell prepared for the new-look Virginia D that had done a nice job in wins over Wake Forest, Boston College and Notre Dame defending along more conventional lines.

And then Bennett has his kids come out looking like the glory days of Malcolm Brogdon, Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins, Justin Anderson …

Actually, Bennett isn’t ready to give this year’s guys anywhere near that much credit.

“I don’t think we’ve played 40 minutes of real good defense, or a complete two halves majority of good defense,” Bennett said after this one, even after his team held Clemson to 40.4 percent shooting, .862 points per possession.

Here’s how bad it was for the Tigers – their leading scorer, P.J. Hall, had eight points.

On the other end, Bennett worked back in some mover-blocker, but still used a lot of the looks with 7’1” center Jay Huff initiating offense at the top of the key that have become a staple of the offense of late.

Huff finished with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but he also dished out a career-high five assists, connecting with Kihei Clark on two backdoor layups, Reece Beekman on a layup and a dunk, and Tomas Woldetensae on a three from the wing.

As good as the defense was, and it was good – damn good – the offense may have been better.

Virginia shot 60.7 percent from the floor, hit 21-of-31 – 67.7 percent – in the second half, and was a blistering 10-of-14 from three in the second half.

The 85 points came in a 58-possession game – 1.466 points per possession.

Factor in here that, coming in, Clemson had led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.

Virginia did … that … against the nation’s #1 defense.

“Being a part of any type of run like that, it’s very fun to play,” said Hauser, one of five Virginia players in double digits in scoring, with 14, on 5-of-7 shooting, 4-of-5 from three. “When things are going your way like that, it’s very contagious. I think guys coming off the bench and even guys on the floor at the time, once they saw other people making shots, I think it gave them more confidence to shoot and take good shots. So, I think, overall, it was just a great offensive performance by us.”

Um, yeah.

Coming in, the KenPom numbers had Virginia ranked 33rd nationally on offense.

Afterward, the computer has Virginia ranked 11th in adjusted offense.

Woldetensae added 14, on 5-of-7 shooting, 4-of-6 from three.

Mid-week, the senior didn’t even get on the floor in Virginia’s 80-68 win over Notre Dame.

“I hope it’s a breakthrough, let’s put it that way,” Woldetensae said. “I played well of course. The energy came from the defensive end. Everybody was engaged. So, you know, you have your teammates that have your back, and at that point, you just show up to play. Last year, I struggled the first half of the season, and I hope now that we passed that struggling moment, we can move forward with a better angle, especially maybe playing in March Madness.”

This was the first significant win for a Virginia team that had come into the season with high expectations – preseason ACC favorite, #4 in the preseason AP Top 25 – and then lost its second game to a middling San Francisco team, ahead of getting blown out by top-ranked Gonzaga.

“We learned from that loss,” Hauser said, referring to the 98-75 loss to the ‘Zags, on national TV, in a high-profile game the day after Christmas. “I think when you lose a game you learn, you don’t really take it as a loss, necessarily, you learn from it and grow from it. I think we’ve grown. We’ve taken some really good strides since that game, and it’s been showing. We are undefeated in the conference right now. We just got to keep sticking with it in practice and stick to the grind and hopefully we can keep winning.”

“We went into the Gonzaga game with that not the same, anger, we had today,” Woldtensae said. “We weren’t hungry to beat them, and to prove that we are as good as we are. Also, I believe that sometimes you got to lose to understand who you are and to win other games. So, it’s not a loss, it’s more of an understanding and improvement, personally.”

“True humble pie, right?” Bennett said. “I think we responded well, when it was Notre Dame next and then, just kept taking the right steps, and thought it was a good effort obviously all the way around. And some really good individual performances.”

Story by Chris Graham


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