On Saturday, the Hoos went down to South Carolina to be the entertainment side dish to the main event: honoring Clemson's national championship football team.
OK, technically that happened at halftime of a basketball game, but the Clemson faithful probably went home happier about five minutes of football celebrations than about the basketball happenings.
UVA basketball is sometimes described as a trip to the dentist's chair for opposing teams, and the first quarter of this one is what they have in mind with that metaphor. After ten minutes of play, the teams were on pace for a 36-8 UVA win. Kyle Guy, though he finished the game with some relatively inefficient numbers, kept the Hoos from matching Clemson's dismal offensive output brick for brick early on.
Eventually things picked up. The first half, mercifully, finished up at a much better clip than it started, and the Hoos held a six-point halftime lead. Not bad for a road game against an opponent that's better than its record says. And then Jay Huff entered the game.
Huff still doesn't get a ton of minutes (yet). But Clemson in early January might just be remembered as the game where he first started making them count. Entering the game a little before the 15-minute mark in the second half, Huff went to work stretching out the defense. Clemson wanted to defend him like they did Jack Salt, which is to say, not at all when he had the ball outside the arc. Salt is a blocker out there. Huff shoots, and he made Clemson pay immediately. As he rose for a three that splashed through, UVA was up only four and fighting to hold off a slow but steady Clemson advance. When he left the game about seven minutes later, UVA was up 18, with Huff getting credit for almost singlehandedly loosening up the Tiger defense and clearing the floor for everyone else to start filling the basket.
Later, in early garbage time, Huff faced a Clemson defender who had figured out that you had to be close enough to Huff to contest a three, but lazily expected Huff's feet to plant firmly to the floor unless launching said three. Huff darted past him when he looked the other way and used his Inspector Gadget arms to dunk from something like 12 feet away. It was the cherry on top of a performance that made Huffer-puffers everywhere swoon.
That refers, of course, to a particular wing of the fanbase who think Huff should have about four times the minutes he has by now - and have been very vocal about it. Tony Bennett, of course, has used playing time as a carrot-and-stick measure to wring better defensive efficiency out of Huff. This game only changed the tenor of the debate from "more minutes for Huff" to "look what we could have had if we'd listened." Which succeeded only in launching a chicken-and-egg dance: did Huff break out because he's been coached hard and only gotten the minutes Tony felt he earned, or would this have happened earlier if Tony wasn't so stubborn?
Well. At any rate, no matter how you felt about it before, Huff's breakout is exciting. A seven-man rotation appears to be moving toward seven and a half - maybe eight by the end of the season? And all of them - even Salt - can give this team real secondary scoring in any given game. Mamadi Diakite, after being the KenPom MVP against Boston College with 18 points, put up a goose egg in this one - and it didn't matter even a little bit thanks to Huff grabbing the MVP reins. Yup: ten minutes was all he needed for that.
This win moved UVA to 3-0 in the ACC, and more importantly, got them a road win on what shapes up to be a brutal road slate. UNC, Duke, VT, Louisville, Syracuse, and NC State all loom on the schedule away from Charlottesville. Getting a tough check in the box early will pay off later.
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