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Virginia’s offense keeps rolling heading into tough test against Syracuse

UVA basketballThe perfect possession against a zone come with just under 10 minutes left. After calling out the Virginia offensive set, Kihei Clark swung the ball to Kyle Guy on the wing, and Guy pump faked before sending the ball down low to De’Andre Hunter near the baseline. Hunter rifled a pass to Braxton Key on the opposite wing, and Key whipped it back to Clark at the top of the key. Clark pump faked and drove the lane, drawing two defenders before dumping to Hunter. When Pittsburgh’s Jared Wilson-Frame collapsed down to Hunter, Guy was wide open. Hunter made the easy pass, and the all-time leading three-point shooter, percentage-wise, in Virginia history buried an open look.

It was just one possession in what ended up being a blowout 73-49 win for the Cavaliers on Saturday, but it was a great display of the Cavaliers’ ability to score against a zone defense, something that will come in handy in the coming days.

Virginia kept the good times going on the offensive end Saturday, putting up 73 points on just 60 possessions, good for 1.22 points per possession. It’s the second straight effort in which the Cavaliers have posted at least 1.2 points per possession, a good sign for the team as it heads into a tough late-season showdown at Syracuse on Monday.

“[Syracuse has been] one of the best zone teams in recent years in the game,” Tony Bennett said Saturday after the game.

Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone is the 18th-most efficient defense in the nation, per KenPom. Syracuse is coming off a 79-54 win at Wake Forest in which the Demon Deacons shot just 32.7 percent.

Though Virginia has had success against zones recently, Syracuse is a completely different test. The Orange are the tallest team in the nation and lead the nation in block percentage.

“I don’t know if we’ve played against the Syracuse zone,” Bennett said. “Pitt tried to do some of that… With [Syracuse’s] length, they’re so good at it, their anticipation. … We’ve talked about it: You’re gonna have to be able to knock down some shots, get on the glass, get the ball in the right spots, take care of the ball and play the heck out of the defense. That formula hasn’t changed.”

That’s not the only challenge, though. The matchup in northern New York comes just over 48 hours after the Cavaliers finished off the Panthers. It’ll be the Cavaliers’ third game in six days.

“You have to be ready to go,” Bennett said. “You have to be smart in your preparation, the day in between. You’re in, usually, a hostile environment. It’s certainly a challenge, and we’re in some important games, so I think it’s a healthy challenge. … You gotta travel, you gotta get there and then lock in and be ready to play.”

It’s hard not to be encouraged about the team’s chances, given how well the Cavaliers have played recently, though. The hosts had 62 points roughly halfway through the second half Saturday before bringing in some of their reserves, the second straight game in which the Cavaliers’ key players got some much-deserved rest. Kyle Guy (17 points), Ty Jerome (13) and De’Andre Hunter (12) combined for 42 points on just 20 shots, an outstanding efficiency. None played more than 29 minutes.

“Any time we can get rest, it’s definitely beneficial,” Jerome said.

The cog in the offensive machine was Hunter, who needed just six shots to reach one dozen points. Stationed in the high post, Hunter scored on a variety of mid-range jumpers and drives to the basket and also popped out to knock down a three. He also got to the free-throw line four times. He’ll be an essential part of cracking the Syracuse zone Monday. He had 18 points against the Yellow Jackets’ zone Wednesday.

Just as important, though, will be the Cavaliers’ ability to hit from the outside. Opponents have attempted over 26 shots per game from deep against Syracuse — one of the highest figures in the nation — as going against a zone naturally inclines teams to shoot from the perimeter. Guy showed how dangerous he can be against those sets, though, by knocking down five triples Saturday. He had three more against Georgia Tech’s zone Wednesday. Guy has canned 13 deep balls in three career games against Syracuse.

Meanwhile, Kihei Clark turned a strong effort Wednesday into a start Saturday and poured in six points. After missing all 11 of his shots during a three-game stretch prior to this week, he has made all five of his attempts over the last two contests. He also dished out four assists and had his third straight game with no turnovers.

“I think just being a point guard, you can’t turn the ball over,” Clark said. “[I’m] just being more ball-conscious and taking care of the ball.”

Defensively, he locked down Pitt’s leading scorer Xavier Johnson, who averages over 16 points per game this season but scored just three on 0-for-7 shooting.

“I’m just doing my job,” Clark said. “When I’m picking up the ball, and I’m playing good defense like that, I know the guys behind me are right there to help me when I do break down, so it just helps me do my job a lot easier.”

Saturday served as yet another reminder of the Cavaliers’ well-rounded offensive attacked. Monday night will be another test — and another opportunity to show just how good this team is on both ends — at one of the toughest places to play in the nation.

Story by Zach Pereles

augusta free press
augusta free press