Big Game Hunter
In a battle between the ACC's two best defenses, the Virginia Cavaliers were able to turn theirs into enough offense to grab the initiative and ultimately drive the Yellow Jackets off their home court, 64-48. Virginia forced 18 turnovers, driven by 10 pilfers, and turned those into 8 fast break points. Yes, America, Virginia used the transition game to beat an ACC foe.
The Hoos never backed down from Georgia Tech big man Ben Lammers and a rugged interior defense, first taking the ball directly at Lammers and the rim, resulting in 6 first half blocked shots for the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year. But then redshirt freshman De'Andre Hunter came off the bench and revealed to his team the formula: draw Lammers away from the rim and go around him. It was Hunter's innovation that finally allowed the Hoos to turn an 8:00 Tech drought into some separation.
The last time Virginia entered Atlanta, they shot 4-18 from three-point range in a 68-64 loss to the Yellow Jackets. This time they didn't rely on the outside shot, despite having three of the ACC's best long-range marksmen - probably because they figured out McCamish Pavilion is a difficult place to shoot - as their first half jump shooting forays showed. Everything went left as if a door were open and a breeze was blowing across the court. The Hoos ended up at 3-13 from the arc - but ironically it was a 3-point shot that broke the game open and gave Virginia a tactical advantage it would not give up.
Tech freshman Curtis Haywood hit a three with 17 seconds remaining in the first half to bring the Ramblin' Wreck within 5 at 24-19. Down at the other end, Devon Hall drove down the left side of the lane, drew the defense to him, and found De'Andre Hunter alone in the left corner. Hunter let it fly with 2 seconds on the clock. The ball dropped cleanly through the net as Abdoulaye Gueye knocked Hunter to the floor. Dre sank the free throw for the Hoos' second 4-point play in as many games, this one giving them a 28-19 halftime lead. The way the two teams were playing defense, that 9 points seemed like 20. As often as announcers repeat that cliché when it's not really accurate, this time it was true.
Tadric Jackson driving into the lane for floaters and Haywood bombing threes were able to keep Tech within striking range until Virginia dashed off 7 quick points on a Devon Hall 3, a Kyle Guy steal and fast break layup at the end of a great, swarming defensive stand, a Hunter block on magnificent one-on-one defense against Josh Okogie, and a driving jumper by Guy. The Hoos were up 45-28 with less than twelve minutes to play, and the Yellow Jackets were on the verge of quitting.
Virginia wasted three opportunities to put the Jackets away with a turnover and a couple of bad shots. Tech got its will back when Jackson drove in for a layup to cut the lead to 15, and Okogie hit a 3 off a Jackson drive and dish. Then Guy missed a three and Jackson scored again, and suddenly the Virginia lead was down to 11. A Nigel Johnson layup was immediately countered by a Jose Alvarado 3 and Tech was back to within 10 with a suddenly roaring crowd and over eight minutes still to play.
Would Virginia's stretch of complacency come back to bite them?
No. Ty Jerome ended the offensive futility by driving behind Lammers and getting fouled at the rim by Okogie. He hit both free throws, then after a stop, Jerome drove again for a layup and 52-38 lead. Then Isaiah Wilkins drove Lammers into the lane and lofted a jump hook over him. After yet another defensive stop, Hunter posted up the smaller Tech defender and hit an easy jump hook over him to cap an 8-0 burst in two minutes for a 56-38 lead with just over 5:00 to play.
Virginia was able to generate offense by drawing Lammers out and going around him. In the first half, Hunter and Wilkins both drew Lammers to the perimeter when he was guarding them, then drove right at him. Hunter scored twice and Wilkins drew a foul. Guy did it in the second half when Lammers got switched onto him. Then Virginia started bringing Lammers' mark out of the post area up to the foul line and driving baseline into the vacated space. With Lammers out of the way, the Hoos were able to win the battles at the rim.
Defensively, the Hoos forced Tech into 18 turnovers and a slew of bad shots. This is a new Virginia defense. It's PacklineTM in name and legend more than actual tactics. Unlike the Virginia defenses of yore that drew a line and forced you to shoot from outside it - but pretty much let you operate freely out there - this defense pressures the perimeter, because its help and rotations are so good that it can contest at the rim if the perimeter is breached. Because almost everyone on the floor has a high basketball IQ and excellent anticipation, they force turnovers and steal the ball at rates previously unknown in Virginia basketball.
It was decisive in this game. The 8 fast break points gave the Hoos enough easy baskets to break those spells of futility against a tough defense. The offensive innovation also should not be overlooked. Spreading the floor, drawing Lammers away from the basket and going one-on-one allowed the Hoos to make plays.
The game continued some encouraging trends. For the second straight game, Kyle Guy was efficient inside the arc. After going 4-5 against State, Guy was 4-6 in close against Georgia Tech. His fast break layup and driving left hander over Lammers were a crucial 4 points in building the big 17-point lead.
The 2016 recruiting class again carried the main offensive load. Hunter, Jerome and Guy combined for 40 of the 64 points. This time Hunter took the lead with 17 points in a magnificent all-around game. Jerome had 12 and Guy 11.
While Devon Hall was the Glue Hoo of the Game with a 12 Glue Index, and Isaiah Wilkins was the HOOS Place Impact Player of the Game with a 22 SPI, De'Andre Hunter was the real story of the game, both for his productivity and for the way he impacted the flow with his insertion into the game. When Virginia was unable to put the ball through the hoop, Hunter came in and scored 4 quick points. He stuffed the stat sheet and scored in a variety of ways. He posted up, hit a three, drove to the rim, tipped in misses and sank jumpers. Defensively, he guarded everybody. No, literally everybody - and that means "literally" by its dictionary definition. He also was the leading rebounder with 7 and contributed a steal and a blocked shot. He started the second half and helped Virginia avoid a comeback out of the locker room by the home team. His performance continued the remarkable transformation from timid freshman tripping over his own feet to Human Highlight Mix. He is showing the ACC why Virginia fans have been so excited to see him play for two years now.
Meanwhile, Ty Jerome was a M0f0: Second-leading scorer with 12, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and a 21 SPI. He did have 3 turnovers, but the steals and his hustle on a couple of loose balls more than made up for them. He was the team's leading defensive rebounder with 5, helping to reverse a recent trend of giving up too many offensive rebounds.
The win was Virginia's second conference road win at a place many ACC rivals are likely to lose. Neither game was close. The Cavaliers' conference margin of victory at home is 9 in four games and on the road is 21 in two games. Soon the media won't be able to use the lack of conference road games qualifier to downgrade Virginia's accomplishments. Next up is a trip to Winston-Salem for Sunday Night ACC Hoops against Wake Forest.
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