Back To The Paint
The Hoos picked up another ACC Tournament win, defeating Clemson 64 to 58 in Friday night's first semifinal matchup. The win sets up a showdown against the Tarheels with the ACC championship trophy on the line Saturday night.
Like the Clemson game at JPJ this season, the Tigers played the Hoos extremely tough early.
UVA trailed the Tigers 20-13 with 7:24 remaining in the first half. The Tigers used an 8 to 0 run over five minutes of game time to build their lead. Clemson was defending well, making shots, and had their confidence soaring. And just like that, a switch seemed to flip for UVA. The Hoos closed the first half on a 19 to 3 run that lasted the last 7:24 of the first half. It was at that point that UVA seized control of the game, heading to halftime with a 32 to 23 lead.
To a casual observer or someone that didn't watch the game, it would be easy to assume that UVA got their outside shots to start dropping and buried Clemson with a barrage of threes from Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Devon Hall. If so, you would be mistaken.
Continuing the theme established against Louisville in the quarterfinals, UVA found their way and a lead by scoring in the paint. And they salted the game away by continuing their focus on paint touches and paint scoring. Against Louisville, the Hoos scored 42 of their 75 points in the paint, 56% of their output. They won the battle in the paint by a 42 to 16 margin.
Against Clemson, the Hoos again won the battle in the paint, outscoring Clemson 26 to 14. Now, it wasn't the 56% of points like against Louisville, but it was still a healthy 40.6% of their points.
Two things are really impressive about that result.
The first is that Clemson's defensive is anchored by another ACC All-Defensive Team member in center Elijah Thomas. Thomas finished with the third highest vote total on the team behind UVA's Isaiah Wilkins and Louisville's Anas Mahmoud. Thomas also finished third in the ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Wilkins and Mahmoud. To top it off, Thomas also made the HOOS Place ACC All-Defensive team, joining Louisville's Ray Spalding Jr. as the only non UVA members of the team.
The other impressive aspect of UVA's paint scoring is the multitude of players contributing to that success. UVA has a reputation as a jump shooting team. It's a well-earned reputation and one that's been in the works since the graduation of Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey after the 2015-2016 season. That reputation peaked in the overtime loss to Virginia Tech at JPJ. In that game, the Hoos shot an absurd 38 three point shots, 34 coming from the trio of Guy, Jerome, and Hall.
After the Virginia Tech loss, the Hoos had a three day break before traveling to Miami for the next game. And it's been readily apparent from that game forward that the players received their coaches' message loud and clear: touch the paint early and often.
Since that focus began, the Hoos have utilized players up and down their roster to score from the paint in a variety of ways making up for the lack of a true back to the basket scoring presence. There are runners from Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. There are pull up jumpers from Jerome. Devon Hall has increased his downhill driving and is finishing well at the rim. Isaiah Wilkins is cleaning up the garbage and has used a credible jump hook from the middle of the lane to score. De'Andre Hunter has displayed a full arsenal of ways to score from the paint: dunks, layups, put backs, short jumpers, turn arounds, and so forth. And the recent emergence of Mamadi Diakite's maturing post game has really taken things to the next level. And I dare not forget Kyle Guy's first two career dunks from the ACC Tournament either.
And I haven't mentioned Jack Salt yet. Quite frankly, without Salt's scoring outburst against Clemson, 8 points on 4 for 5 shooting, the Hoos do not win this game. Salt scored on three back to the basket moves, two of which were against Thomas. He also had one crucial tip in as well. Salt has also contributed his usual smattering of dunks but it was really his deft touch on the blocks tonight that shined brightest.
If the Hoos maintain this focus on paint touches and scoring, it will make for an enjoyable March. And that begins Saturday night with the ACC Tournament title on the line.
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