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Virginia Basketball: ‘Hoos capture ACC regular-season title, look forward to more

uva basketballWith Ty Jerome headed to the foul line with just over five minutes to go, Virginia needed defense. In came Mamadi Diakite. Jerome sank two free throws, giving the Cavaliers a 63-62 lead.

On the ensuing possession, Diakite played his role perfectly, making a well-timed recovery in the lane. Louisville’s Jordan Nwora traveled, giving the ball back to the hosts.

In came Jay Huff, Virginia’s most gifted big man offensively, for Diakite. And Huff, too, filled his role perfectly, knocking down a three — his third in three attempts — and Virginia never looked back. The Cavaliers scored 12 of the game’s final 18 points to earn a 73-68 win over Louisville, clinching their second consecutive ACC regular-season title and displaying the versatility that will serve them well in the postseason.

“I think that is the key — having different guys at different times,” Bennett said. “That has to happen for us to be successful in single-elimination tournaments now.”

The game had hints of what has made Virginia so good over the past few seasons — the Cavaliers had just four turnovers, forced 10 from Louisville, scored efficiently and used a strong second-half run to win — but also showed the capable, multifaceted depth that makes this year’s version arguably Tony Bennett’s best.

Down the stretch, Bennett rotated Huff and Diakite as his big men and used Braxton Key as a multiskilled wing. Key hit an important corner three, knocked down six free throws, hauled in five rebounds and had two blocks in the game and played a big role as part of the group that finished the contest.

It was awesome,” Key, an Alabama transfer, said about cutting down the nets. “I’ve never done that in my career, so it was fun and humbling to finally do that. Hopefully I’ve got a lot more going on in the future.”

Winning the ACC regular-season championship is nothing to scoff at. Before Saturday, the Cavaliers hadn’t won back-to-back conference regular-season crowns since Ralph Sampson patrolled the paint in Charlottesville. Earning a ninth-straight win over the Cardinals is certainly impressive as well. Owning a winning streak like that over any conference foe — much less one of the better ones, historically — is remarkable by itself.

But the Cavaliers also know that while this is another nice number to the ever-expanding “ACC Regular Season Champions” banner at John Paul Jones Arena, it’s just the first part of a triple crown quest they aim to complete in the coming weeks.

“For me individually, I kind of do this umbrella goal,” Kyle Guy said last weekend. “First you win the ACC championship, and then everything else will fall underneath. If we take care of our business, then everything else will be fine. We are absolutely hunting for three championships this year.”

Still, it’s hard not to marvel at what the Cavaliers accomplished in defending their regular-season title. Virginia dropped just two games all season — both to Duke — while becoming the first ACC program ever to capture five top-25 road wins (at Maryland, NC State, UNC, Virginia Tech and Louisville).

The Cavaliers did it while working in two new pieces — the Alabama transfer Key and incoming first-year Kihei Clark — and welcoming a third, Huff, to the rotation after the redshirt sophomore hardly played during the non-conference slate. Huff and De’Andre Hunter both spent part the offseason rehabbing from significant injuries, too. Those two — along with the other returnees — had to deal with being on the wrong end of history, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.

“We used our theme of ‘United Pursuit’: We’re gonna pursue it for all we’re worth and be united in the hard stuff and in the successes.” Bennett said. “It was really different guys at different times. Obviously the key guys had terrific years.

“To be able to do it in this league over three months and 18 games, it’s really a test of consistency, and they answered the bell. … These guys and this group, they paid the price in the offseason, and they worked hard, and their body of work speaks for itself.”

Of course, as Guy said last week, Virginia won’t rest on its laurels. Rather, the Cavaliers will look to use their impressive regular season, the emergence of several contributors and the motivation of an early bow out last year over the next month.

If Saturday’s result was any indication of how they’ll play with championships on the line, the Cavaliers are in good shape. Louisville shot the ball well from three, won the rebounding battle and limited Hunter to just nine points, his fewest in more than three months.

But there it was again: Virginia’s ability to overcome struggles that might have doomed previous teams.

Jerome dumped in 24 points and handed out six assists. Guy reeled in a team-high six rebounds and hit two clutch second-half threes. Huff scored nine points in 13 minutes and also had two blocks. While Hunter’s emergence as a top-flight player nationally has vaulted Virginia’s individual talent, the team’s ability to overcome his struggles Saturday showed its progress as a group.

“To be honest, we had higher expectations for this year than last year,” Jerome said. “We were coming off losing, what, three games last year, and we returned a lot.

“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.”

It’s nothing new to see Virginia win hard-fought regular-season games such as this one, and it’s nothing new for the team to have national championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers head into the postseason hoping to hang a new banner. And by adding another year to an old one on Saturday, they’re off to a good start.

Story by Zach Pereles

augusta free press
augusta free press