Virginia leans on old reliable defense — plus Hunter and Guy — in win over Notre Dame
Story by Zach Pereles
De’Andre Hunter’s second shot came from his bread and butter: the mid-range.
It was an inauspicious start for Virginia’s leading scorer, part of a brutal opening for the Cavaliers on the offensive end against a Notre Dame zone they never quite solved.
The cold shooting stuck for most of the Cavaliers. Luckily for them, though, Hunter warmed up.
Despite making just 19 field goals — none over the final 6:40 of the game — and shooting just 36.5 percent — their second-worst mark of the season — the Cavaliers snuck by Notre Dame thanks to what it’s leaned on throughout Tony Bennett’s career in Charlottesville: spurts of timely offense and 40 minutes of hellacious defense.
“You never apologize for a victory in a league like this, and I don’t” Bennett said following the game. “But we made enough plays and made the free throws [to win.]”
It was a far cry from the first meeting between these teams, an 82-55 domination by the Cavaliers in South Bend last month. Thanks to Hunter and Kyle Guy, though, it was the same result.
It was Guy who the Cavaliers leaned on early and who was seemingly the only Virginia player with any pep in his step offensively. He opened the game with a tough, twirling left-handed layup. Over five minutes later, those points were the only two Virginia had before he drilled home a triple to give the Cavaliers their first lead — at 5-4 — and then another one on the next possession to extend the lead to four.
Guy has had no problem getting going against the favorite team of his childhood this year. As an Indiana native, Guy admired the Irish since birth and watched Mike Brey develop the program into one of the nation’s finest. But he never got an offer from the Irish, and for that the Cavaliers were once again thankful Saturday.
In Virginia’s previous triumph, he lit up for 15 points on just eight shots. But in that contest, he was one of five Cavaliers to hit double figures, and he played just 32 minutes — his second-fewest in ACC play — as Virginia cruised.
On Saturday, the Cavaliers needed every one of his team-high 22 points in a complete 40 minutes of game action. He scored Virginia’s first eight and 10 of its first 13 to keep the hosts afloat. He also nailed four key free throws down the stretch.
“I think it’s so good to be in those spots,” Bennett said. “He seemed pretty calm … Those were big free throws that we made.”
Though Guy’s first three gave Virginia a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, Saturday’s contest certainly didn’t lack for worrisome moments for the nation’s No. 4 team. The Cavaliers’ biggest lead was just 10 points. They led by just four points at halftime. The lead was down to just a single point on several occasions during the second half.
That’s where Hunter came in. After heating up late in the first half to get to seven points, Hunter became the force Virginia needed to drive its sluggish offense in the second half.
When Notre Dame’s 10-2 run had the Irish just one point down, 41-40, with under 11 minutes left, Hunter attacked the undersized Dane Goodwin and drew a foul. He hit both freebies. On the ensuing possession, he caught a pass at the elbow, turned around and fired.
The clangs from earlier were now swishes. Virginia stretched its lead back to five, and Brey needed a timeout. When the Irish got it to a one-point deficit minutes later, Hunter again connected from the midrange. Later in the half, he’d connect on four free throws across two possessions to stretch Virginia’s lead to double digits for the only time on the entire afternoon. It wasn’t his prettiest 20-point performance ever, but it was as effective as ever. Hunter — who serves as Virginia’s one-man zone buster — also nabbed 10 rebounds, which tied a career high and secured his second ever double-double.
“I just wanted to be more aggressive [in the second half],” Hunter said. “I felt like I was floating a little bit. I just got in the right spots, and my teammates gave me the ball.”
Guy was a bit more pointed in his praise for Hunter.
“He’s so good and talented at one-on-one basketball,” Guy said. “There’s not anybody in the country who can stop him. When he gets going, people start helping off more, and it gets me and Ty [Jerome] and other guys open shots.”
Though it was the Guy and Hunter show offensively, it was another defensive clinic from the Cavaliers that won them the game. The Irish hit just eight of 30 three point tries — including just three of 15 in the second half — en route to their second-fewest points of the season. Double-double machine John Mooney registered 11 points and 15 rebounds to bring his season total to 16 double-doubles, but he needed 13 shots, including a late, uncontested dunk, to get to double-digit points.
“He’s kind of a stretch five, if you will, who’s got inside-outside game,” Bennett said. “[He’s] a harder matchup.”
The Cavaliers got back to basics in other areas in which they so often excel, too. After posting at least 14 turnovers in three consecutive games, they had just eight Saturday, though they all came in the second half.
“I think it’s good for us [to see], ‘OK, shot’s not going in. Are we gonna be sound? Are we gonna stay together and come up with big stops or find other ways?’” Bennett said. “That’s part of maturing as a team.”
Going forward, there will be games where Bennett’s squad needs more than just 60 points, needs to shoot better than 36.5 percent and needs more than just Guy and Hunter to be reliable threats. But on Saturday, the Cavaliers relied on two of the best offensive threats in the ACC and moved forward into a rivalry matchup against Virginia Tech no worse off than they were before.
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