Surprises and Expected Results
Not long before the start of the game, Virginia learned that two starters would not be playing for South Carolina: big man Maik Kotsar and point guard T.J. Moss. They joined wing Justin Minaya, who had been lost to the team a couple games earlier. Not long after the start of the game, South Carolina learned that the one injured Virginia starter would indeed play. It turns out that Kihei Clark's "indefinite" beats Coach K's: Not even 1 game! In a game he was supposed to miss after surgery on his broken wrist, the Mong00se logged 24 minutes. It was not his best game, as he had trouble finishing, but Clark blew by South Carolina defenders with ease and added 2 assists/0 turnovers to his impressive early season. It was his backcourtmates, Virginia's Splash Brothers of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy who led the way, with strong support from classmate Mamadi Diakite and senior Jack Salt.
The late changes to the teams' lineups were the big surprises of the night. The results on the floor were as expected between a top 5 team and a team that has lost to Wyoming and Stony Brook among others. The visiting Cavaliers rolled to a 17-point win, 69-52, in a game they never trailed. As might be expected from a team that has not played in ten days, they had a poor start, appearing mentally sped up on offense, making them mistake-prone. Despite holding the Gamecocks scoreless for nearly the first four minutes of the game, when Hassani Gravett did score for South Carolina at the 16:09 mark, he brought his team to within two.
Ty Jerome powered through a bad start in which he turned the ball over, was subbed out, and missed his first three three-pointers, by going hard to the basket through open lanes. His aggressiveness worked, and after South Carolina scored on a fast break basket to make it 11-8 Virginia, Jerome went on an 11 to 4 run himself to push the lead up to 10 and knock South Carolina back on its heels.
But the 'Cocks wouldn't go away. They scratched back into it by switching defenses to a 1-2-2 zone, which bothered Virginia because they tried to attack it with their normal 2-3 zone offense, resulting in another Jerome turnover and several missed shots by Braxton Key and De'Andre Hunter. The first three point attempt of his career by freshman Alanzo Frink, who was only seeing the floor thanks to the injury to Kotsar in Tuesday's practice, cut the deficit to one.
The Hoos responded. "Coach Soderberg gave a great recommendation at about that four minute mark," Coach Bennett explained post-game. "He said, 'Hey, let's put Ty in the high post.' ... Ty got Kyle some shots, and we had some drives." The Hoos started screening the point man on the zone, getting the ball to the elbows and driving from there. They settled down and did not turn the ball over again in the first half (and only once in the second). Guy and Jerome splashed back-to-back threes, and the favored Hoos went into the locker room with a 33-26 lead.
"We didn't sustain the discipline and unity we needed to overcome a team like Virginia," South Carolina coach Frank Martin thought after the game. "We let their two guys make back-to-back threes not because they ran good offense, but we just lost focus on the back side of the zone and didn't realize where their shooter was at."
Jerome overcame his early poor shooting to put up 16 first half points, four of them on free throws and six more on drives to the basket. He finally hit from the arc when Clark drove in from the right wing and found him spotted up in the opposite corner.
The second half was similar, with the Gamecocks pushing back into the game and the Cavaliers responding. After Diakite hit a jumper right out of the gate, South Carolina chopped the lead to 4 on a scintillating fast break dunk by freshman Keyshawn Bryant and a long three from the top of the key over the outstretched fingertips of Diakite by reserve big man Felipe Haase (pronounced 'HOSS-ay'). Virginia clamped down at that point and took complete control with a 17-4 blitz over the next five minutes. The Virginia onslaught featured scoring by six different Hoos, including Hunter's best play of the night (and-1) and culminating in a Key fast break dunk that prompted Martin to call time out with his team down 52-35 at the 13:00 mark.
The closest South Carolina would get the rest of the way was 10. Twice they cut it to 11. Every time, Virginia responded with good execution and a basket. In the second half, it was Guy taking the lead with 12 points on 3-7 from the arc. Jerome was the engine again, however, with 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Jerome was hyper-efficient this half, not turning the ball over and making 4 of his 5 shots.
Martin explained how Virginia defeated his zone in the second half. "In the second half, when they ran some stuff against our zone, they got so many shooters, and so many skilled guys who can play off the bounce, that they spread our zone out, so when it spreads out, we gotta match up, contain man-to-man. They put Alanzo [Frink] on a ball screen all the time. Every single time. So now all of a sudden our guards are getting beat by two real-real-real good players in Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy."
Jerome and Guy overcame a second consecutive poor offensive performance by Hunter with their 25 and 18 points. Diakite had another strong offensive outing, getting to double figures again and neutralizing South Carolina star big man Chris Silva, with 10 points to Silva's 11. Jack Salt was fantastic on defense with 7 rebounds, a block and a steal, and great post defense. He was Virginia's only defender who could stop Silva in the post.
Coach Bennett was mostly pleased with the effort, but he noted that "we need to rebound better.... With Mamadi and Jack playing more together we should be able to rebound, and our guards - that was our big lineup with De'Andre, Jack and Mamadi. That will get you beat if you're not right. Second chance points are big. So we will go to work on it."
Ultimately, this was a workmanlike effort against a bad team. Grit and aggressiveness overcame a sloppy start and some head-scratching attempts to grapple with another odd-front zone. It was often ugly and frustrating, raises some questions going forward, but a 17-point road win over a lower-tier power conference opponent is always a good win.
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