Hunter Jerome Overdrive: Takin Care of Business
The Virginia Cavaliers scored the first five points and never looked back: Ty Jerome waited until the very end of the shot clock and found Mamadi Diakite next to the basket for an uncontested layup, then followed that up with a Howitzer shot. He would score or assist on Virginia's first 19 points, pushing them out to an 8-point lead. Seven would be the closest the Hokies would come thereafter, for the last time at 21-14 halfway through the first half. The Hoos pummelled them with a barrage of three-pointers, hitting 10 of 14 in the half. There was no two-minute, ten-oh run; it was rocks under the hammers of convicts, one rage-filled blow after another. Jerome was the crew chief but everyone swung a hammer. Jerome made 4 of 5 three-pointers and assisted on 5 of his teammates' 6. Kyle Guy and Kihei Clark were 2-3 each. De'Andre Hunter hit one of two. Jay Huff nailed his one attempt. Everybody who shot one hit at least one. Meanwhile, the Hokies, who came into the game shooting over 40% as a team, were 2-9.
Virginia was locked in from the start. Repeatedly, they went deep into the shot clock, working without remorse or panic against Tech's relentless defensive pressure. The Hokies showed why they had the #21 defense per Kenpom, but it didn't help, because Virginia showed why more and more commentators think they are the best team in the nation. The player movement was violent and the ball movement swift. Both teams played with peak intensity, but Virginia was just better. Only twice in the half did Tech score consecutive points: when they cut the initial deficit to 5-4, and a minute later when they hit a pair of free throws and a three to pull within two at 11-9 at the 14:35 mark. From that point on, the lead grew steadily throughout the half, ending up at 22, exactly how many points the visitors had managed to scrape together.
When Jerome corraled a defensive rebound with six ticks left on the first half clock and raced upcourt, everybody expected him to pull up at some point and launch the final shot. He didn't, and just as it looked like he was careering out of control to a wild shot, he flipped the ball out to Clark waiting in the corner. Wide open, Kihei delivered, the pop of his shot through the net coming right after the halftime buzzer. The Hoos had doubled up the #9 Hokies, 44-22. After demolishing ACC foes Florida State, Boston College and Clemson, this first half was the most impressive ball they had played all season. Led by Jerome's 12 points (4-5 shooting, all threes) and 7 assists, the Hoos outshot Tech 68% from the floor, 71% from the arc to 35% and 22% 3FG; outrebounded them 13-7; and had 11 assists to Tech's 3. Hunter was the second-leading scorer with 11 and leading rebounder with 5. He scored inside and out. Guy added 8 and Clark 6, each of them burying two of his three attempts from the arc.
Everyone who played contributed one way or another. Diakite and Jack Salt subdued Hokies big man Kerry Blackshear, keeping him off the boards and hanging two fouls on him. Braxton Key had two assists and was the primary defender on Ty Outlaw, preventing the 49% three-point shooter from getting any decent looks. Outlaw would miss his only three-point try of the half. Jay Huff came into the game at the 12:16 mark with Virginia holding a 16-11 lead and promptly blocked an Isaiah Wilkins shot under the basket to himself, then on the other end stepped out to the arc and calmly drained his only three-point shot from the top of the key, blowing the roof off the gym. When Huff went back to the bench six minutes later, the Hoos were up 32-19.
You don't play two halves like that. After a stunning display of near-perfection, some drop-off is inevitable. Would the Hokies have enough spirit to get back into the game? Would the Hoos have a letup or suffer through one of their five-minute dry spells? Surely they would not be able to shoot 10-14 from the arc again. If Virginia Tech was going to have a chance of getting back into this game, they were going to have to start the half strong.
To their credit, the Hokies came out of the locker room fighting. Nickeil Alexander-Walker started things off with a three, then senior Ahmed Hill traded baskets with De'Andre Hunter before going on his own 7-0 run with a fast break alley oop dunk, a pair of free throws after an offensive rebound, and his first made three of the night. Hill had sliced the Virginia lead to 14 with over 15 minutes to play. When he splashed his second three of the half at 13:14, the deficit was 16 and the Hokies were still alive.
Not for long. Hunter assaulted the paint, drawing a shooting foul on Blackshear, his fourth. That sent Blackshear to the bench and Hunter to the line. He hit both. Without Blackshear, the Hoos simply bullied the smaller Hokies in the paint. Key and Salt combined for the next 7 UVA points as the Hoos forced the lead back to 21 with ten minutes left. When Jerome rebounded his own miss and lofted the follow into the basket, Tech coach Buzz Williams had seen enough. Point guard Justin Robinson dribbled to halfcourt to call timeout. Only it wasn't an uneventful dribble. He was hounded the entire way by the Mong00se, badgered into losing his cool and tossing the ball at the damnable varmint. The nearest referee called a technical on Robinson, the crowd roared, Williams benched his senior leader, and Guy's two free throws closed the sentence with no participles dangling, 68-43. Huff tacked on the exclamation point with a pair of tomahawk dunks on feeds from Jerome.
The Hokies will draw solace from playing the second half even, 37-37, but it was about as meaningful as Florida State's 16-0 run. Like Florida State, the Hokies were told in no uncertain terms "you are not leaving our house with another win." Both teams had won their last time here; both teams would leave this time with all the vigor of Napoleon's Grand Armee retreating from Moscow.
Jerome was sensational - the player of the game. It was his career high in assists and his first career double-double. He finished with 14 points, 12 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals. Hunter put on a dazzling display of diverse offense for the NBA scouts in attendance with 21 points on 8-12 shooting. He tied Guy and Salt for the rebound lead with 5 boards. Guy added 15 points and Clark tallied 9.
The Cavaliers now sit at 16-0 on the season, alone atop the ACC at 4-0. It was their second thrashing of a top ten team at the JPJ. The win sets up Saturday's showdown with Duke at Cameron. The game lost a little lustre with Duke's loss to Syracuse Monday night, and the likelihood that Tre Jones will not play, but it will still be AP #1 against Coaches' Poll #1, with ESPN's College Gameday in town.
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