That was one of the most inspired and inspiring performances I've watched. The Hoos took the floor with a passion and zeal that belied the short turnaround from their previous game and stormed to a 7-0 lead, looking like they were going to blow the Clemson Tigers out of the arena. The JPJ crowd was at full throttle, the student section overjoyed to FINALLY get to be a part of this great season.
But no story is complete without some adversity and a bad guy, and the ACC referees happily stepped into the villain role. First came a cheap illegal screen call on Jack Salt as the Virginia roll was just getting started. Shrug it off, that happens all the time. Then, Kyle Guy snatched his second steal away from Clemson senior guard Gabe DeVoe and streaked downcourt for a layup. The Clemson defender bumped and grabbed Guy, but Kyle powered the ball up off the backboard and through the hoop for the three-point-play opportunity.
But no! No whistle blew. Guy was incredulous and visibly angered. The crowd howled. Wahoos all over the nation watching on the crappy Duke-promoting ACC Network yelled at their TVs. The media reporting live on social media expressed their utter bemusement.
In almost 40 years of watching college basketball, this reporter has never seen that not called as a foul. Defenders can swipe at the shoulder of an opponent heading in for a layup and maybe tickle a hair with a fingertip and whistles blow, but here no foul was called. I have not seen anything close to it since ... well, since the LAST time Kyle Guy got hacked on a fast break layup in JPJ and no foul was called.
It threw the Cavaliers off, and Clemson coach Brad Brownell called time out.
After the time out, before the third-rate ACC Network returned to broadcasting the game, Ty Jerome was called for a foul on DeVoe during a three-point attempt. No idea what happened other than that the crowd was still booing and Tony Bennett was still stomping around his sideline with ineffectual ire. Whatever it was, it gave Clemson three points.
Then, after the Tigers had tied the game on an Aamir Simms layup (more on Simms later), the referees really rubbed it in with a bullshit offensive foul call on Kyle Guy.
The Cavaliers were now mentally off balance. Three bullshit fouls on them and that egregious no call had them bewildered. Clemson responded with their own passion and inspiration. The senior DeVoe was playing with fire for his friend Donte Grantham, the senior forward who just the game before had seen his college career come to a terrible end with an ACL tear. The Clemson team wanted this game, they put their heart in it for him. Simms, who replaced him in the lineup, had a personal source of inspiration.
Aamir Simms grew up in Palmyra, Virginia, a sleepy town 15 miles southeast of Charlottesville. I know Palmyra: I worked there for five years. Simms grew up a Virginian and played high school ball at Blue Ridge School with UVA's Mamadi Diakite. He reportedly wanted to go to UVA, but they never offered. By the time he blossomed under the coaching of former UVA player Cade Lemcke, UVA was full of big men and had no scholarship. By the time Austin Nichols got himself kicked off the team opening a big man slot and scholarship, Simms had committed to Clemson. He had friends and family in the arena, and he wanted to make them proud.
He did. He made his people proud and he showed Virginia what we could have had. He would make a nice part of the team, a wonderful part of the team going forward when Isaiah Wilkins and then Jack Salt graduate. Instead, he attacked the Cavalier defense with his Tigers and helped build a 23-16 lead.
Clemson's play and Virginia's inability to generate decent offensive pressure with Clemson switching on all screens to take away the off-ball cuts looked able to give the 18th-ranked visitors that rare, elusive road win.
Then De'Andre Hunter got fouled going to the basket and the eight minute TV time out came, and Coach Tony Bennett gave his inspirational speech that rallied his troops. We don't know what he said to his men - probably "tighten up the defense" - but Hunter stepped to the line and put in both free throws to cut the 7-point lead back to five. That seven point deficit was the largest the Hoos had faced in this ACC season.
What came next was one of the most dominant defensive performances of the Tony Bennett Era. Bennett's teams are known to play a little defense, so that's saying something. Clemson would not score for the last 6:32 of the first half. Simms would put in the first basket of the second half to cut Virginia's halftime lead in half, then Clemson would manage two more baskets in the next thirteen minutes while Virginia relentlessly, methodically, broke down the Tigers' defense and collapsed their will.
From the 6:32 mark of the first half to the 5:58 mark of the second half was a 36-6 Cavalanche that smothered the Tigers alive. At the end of it, Virginia led 52-29 and Simms was the only Clemson player still fighting.
"That was fun. I'm not going to lie," senior leader Devon Hall said afterward. Hall kept his team alive in the first half when nobody else could find the basket with 5 points during Clemson's 23-9 surge, while Hunter had a jumper in there and his free throws stopped the invaders' progress.
Virginia didn't shoot particularly well, but they won the boards and hounded the Tigers into 19 turnovers - 14 of them on steals. With grand larceny added to the Cavaliers' defensive toolbag what has always been a great defense is now something more. It's gone from that bend-but-don't-break NFL defense to the ballhawking secondary that capitalizes on the team's fierce pass rush for pick-sixes.
The demolition was noted for the lack of any real spurt. There was no 8-0 run over a minute and a half. The closest was the 15 points in just under 5 minutes that pushed it from 37-27 to 52-39. It was just a steady, gradual accumulation of points settling on top of a body held prone by ten hands. "I thought they were just so active with their hands," Bennett said afterward. TWSS.
Clemson came into the game ranked 18th, with the #12 defense in Kenpom efficiency ratings. For most of the game, it was a defensive battle, but the Tigers' mortal defense was no match for this Virginia defense. Bennett is known for defense, all his defenses are good, and in 2014-15 it was so good that the NCAA outlawed it, but this one is proving itself to be the best one yet. With rim protection that 2014-15 team did not have and a penchant for forcing turnovers unprecedented during Bennett's tenure at Virginia, this defense has dimensions previously unknown. The steals help the offense, which needs it, because while the Hoos have won each of the last three games by double digits, the offense has been largely stymied by three consecutive opposing defenses. Clemson was ready for Virginia's Sides action, switching on almost all screens and denying the curls and passes to the wing. They took advantage of the Cavaliers' lack of offense from the big men and reluctance to find and exploit mismatches. Countless times, Kyle Guy or one of the other guards would have a Tiger big man on him, and I don't recall a time when the Hoos cleared out and the guard attacked the mismatch. If you're not going to punish mismatches, there is no reason for the defense NOT to switch your screens. For the most part it worked for Clemson, but the turnovers killed them, and Virginia's patience allowed them to keep scoring at a reasonable pace - helped by a couple of blasts from The Howitzer: Ty Jerome's right arm.
The Hoos accumulated a season-high 9 "Gaps" (3 straight Successful Defensive Possessions) in the game. They racked up 8 consecutive stops from 5:53 of the first half, and 11 straight from 17:28 of the second half. The defensive dominance allowed for runs of 13-0, 11-0, 9-0 and two of 7-0 during the game. And, the HOOS Place Cavalanche Detector recorded the first Cavalanche of this ACC season: From 17:28 to 5:33 of the second half, the Hoos buried the Tigers 24-5 to push their slim 30-27 lead up to 54-32. During that stretch, they held Clemson scoreless for 7:44!
By the end of the game, the euphoria of domination was so strong that the referee malfeasance at the start of the game was almost forgotten. In the days to come, it will be remembered, as it was a foreshadowing of what Virginia can expect on Saturday. But for now, Virginia is 19-1, 8-0 in conference, and is giving the lie to the current DSPN trope that "there are no dominant teams this year."
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