Virginia grinds out road ACC win, grows in the process

uva basketballTeams have to learn how to win. It felt like Virginia learned something valuable Saturday night in Atlanta.

The Cavaliers had a 14-point second-half lead and seemed to be cruising, but then Georgia Tech went on a big run, cut the deficit to two.

For a team on a three-game losing streak, you could be talking, confidence-killer.

“In all three of those losses, we had chances to win. We haven’t learned how to win yet at a high level. Now today, we won,” coach Tony Bennett said after UVA closed out the 63-58 win.

After the Jose Alvarado three that cut the deficit to two – and Alvarado did his best Victor Cruz for the student section – it was Jay Huff who stepped up big.

The 7’1” center – just 6-for-21 from three all season, having gone without a make from long-range since the Dec. 29 win over Navy – connected on a triple to extend the lead to five.

On Georgia Tech’s next possession, then, Huff blocked an Evan Cole dunk attempt, one of the big man’s six blocks of the night.

The junior finished with a career-high 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting in 34 minutes.

He also had a team-best plus-minus of plus-17.

“That’s the third game in a row where he’s really played very solid,” Bennett said. “He gave us continuous effort on the glass, he bothered shots. … Everyone chipped in at different times, but specifically Jay, he really gave us a lift rim-protecting.”

Huff’s frontcourt-mate Mamadi Diakite also poured in 17, on 6-of-14 shooting in 32 minutes.

The good with Diakite: he was 4-of-4 on shots at the rim, and 5-of-6 at the line, including the two clinching free throws with five seconds left.

The not-so-good: 2-of-10 on jumpers, five turnovers.

Braxton Key chipped in 10 points, six rebounds and a season-high six assists in 39 minutes, while working defensively on Georgia Tech’s leading scorer, Michael Devoe.

Devoe had come in averaging 16.5 points per game on 45.0 percent shooting from the field and 41.5 percent shooting from three, while getting an impressive 38.6 percent of his shots at the rim.

Devoe’s final statline: six points on three shot attempts, four assists, five turnovers.

“He had a hard drive guarding Devoe, who has been playing really well. We just tried to tell him to be a roadblock, spread out, get in a stance and keep him in front. I thought he did a good job,” Bennett said.

Virginia also got a nice performance from Tomas Woldetensae, who nine points on 3-of-7 shooting from three, and seems to be finding a groove of late.

The JUCO transfer is shooting 42.5 percent (17-of-40) from three over his last nine games, dating back to the 56-47 win over North Carolina on Dec. 8, and he’s getting more floor time as a result – 32 minutes Saturday night, after also getting 32 minutes in the road loss at Florida State on Wednesday.

Kihei Clark had, like Diakite, some good and bad to his game.

The good: seven points, seven assists, two turnovers in 40 minutes of floor time.

The bad: he was just 1-of-4 from the line, two of the misses being the front end of 1-and-1s, the other being the back end of a two-shot foul with a six-point lead with 16 seconds to go.

“He has such a load on his plate. He has to do so much,” Bennett said. “I think at times, he’s played like a warrior and been remarkable, and of course there’s times that he hasn’t played his best, but he’s got to do that. Some guys have been thrust into spots that probably we weren’t planning on. I thought he was tough tonight.”

It may turn out to be a blessing that Virginia had to grind it out in the end.

“It wasn’t great, and we faltered a little bit, and the wheels were wobbling, but we won,” Bennett said. “This team, it’s all new to them, for the most part. I thought there were going to be some struggles. There is a level of expectation, rightly so or wrongly so, that this program has developed, and that’s a lot for guys who are in new experiences. It’s our job as a staff to keep coaching, keep encouraging, and not be too affected one way or the other.”

Story by Chris Graham

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