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Virginia Uses Vintage Performance to Crush Virginia Tech

Game Highlights

On Dec. 22, unranked South Carolina beat Virginia by 11 at John Paul Jones Arena. Just two games later, the No. 19-ranked Cavaliers looked more like what fans have grown accustomed to seeing, putting together perhaps their most complete performance of the season in downing Virginia Tech in Charlottesville on Saturday, 65-39.

Powered by Braxton Key's second-career double-double, it was a vintage Virginia performance that reminded me of a 2013-14 season-type win. The defense was stifling, and the offense wasn't great, but it was good. Good enough in fact for fans to look up at the scoreboard early in the second half and notice a blowout was taking place rather quietly. UVa (11-2, 3-0 ACC) matched its season high in points and held its fourth opponent to under 40. Virginia has allowed just 40 points per game in three ACC contests and lowered its nation-leading mark to 46.7 ppg, 5 ppg clear of second-place Liberty (coached by former Tony Bennett assistant Ritchie McKay).

Coming off of that loss to the Gamecocks and a shaky victory over Navy, fans probably felt nervous about this matchup against the very young Hokies (10-4, 1-2), who, despite being picked to finish last in the ACC, entered JPJ 10-3, sported a win over then-No. 3 Michigan State at the Maui Invitational, and were generally just playing better than expected in coach Mike Young's first season in Blackburg.

But the youthful part of the Hokies was all that showed up as Virginia's swarming defense choked them, and the efficient offense carved them up and let no mistake go unpunished. Multiple breakdowns allowed the 'Hoos to have good looks right at the basket. Unsurprisingly, UVa, with a big height advantage, owned the glass with a 38-25 rebounding edge. Mamadi Diakite had 10 boards.

The first 30 seconds was a microcosm of the entire game. P.J. Horne missed a 3-pointer for Tech, and Casey Morsell made one for UVa. The Hokies never tied the score. Once Virginia led 9-4 with 11:50 left in the half, the margin never dipped below five. And once UVa led 19-9 with 4:43 to go, the margin never slid back into the single digits. A beautiful inbounds play -- ending a Jay Huff-assisted Kody Stattmann dunk -- made the score 30-17 at halftime. The Wahoos actually whipped the Hokies worse than they did last year at JPJ, when Virginia won that top-10 matchup, 81-59. This game didn't have as many fireworks as that one when UVa made 13 3s, but the team was as equally ruthless.

Key stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points, 10 rebounds, two steals, and a monstrous block off of the backboard. Having the senior back in his groove is just so valuable. He is a solid veteran presence on a young team and does so many good things on both ends of the floor. We may look back at the end of this season and see that the lull a couple of weeks ago was mainly just because of his absence. In Key's four games back from his wrist injury, his points and minutes look like this: zero, seven; eight, 29; 15, 36; and 18, 32.

"It goes to show these past couple games, we really need him," Kihei Clark said of Key. "He just brings a level of toughness, shot-making ability, rebounds. He's just an all-around player for us, and we really need him to be at the top of his game."

Bennett said after the game that for the first time, Key was wearing a splint with padding rather than a cast, which could've helped his dexterity.

Clark matched Key in the points department, a career high for the Californian, who added six assists and two rebounds. He also had four turnovers, but UVa did a nice job of limiting them for the most part, with 11. Huff was the only other player with more than one turnover (two).

"[Clark] played terrific [on] both ends of the floor," Bennett said. "We tried to open the court a little more for him, let him attack, make some decisions. ... I was proud of the way he battled. The pressure he put on both ends offensively and defensively certainly was one of the major keys to victory."

Kody Stattmann was the final Cavalier in double figures as he had his best game, finishing with career highs in points, 10, and rebounds, eight, while adding two assists and a steal. In typical Bennett fashion, though, Stattmann's defense is what got his coach's attention.

"I think defensively [is where he's improved the most]," Bennett said. "Last year coming in, it was very foreign to him. He wasn't able to slide as well, but he is 6-7, and he's bouncy, and [he's got the] ability to bother some shots, to keep guys in front. I thought he made an adjustment from the South Carolina game. But he was good. And then offensively, it's such a new experience for him. He hardly played last year. ... He made a couple of nice plays, got his own rebound on some drives. I was really encouraged by that step from Kody."

Key was the only Cavalier to make multiple 3s, going 2 for 4, but UVa went a respectable 7 of 21 from downtown (33.3 percent), with Clark, Stattmann, Tomas Woldetensae, and Chase Coleman also hitting triples, in addition to Morsell's that opened the game.

The bigger 3-point-shooting story was how bad the Hokies were. They came into the matchup shooting 39.4 percent from deep, a top-15 mark in the nation, but left the building with a 4-for-25 outing. They shot a dismal 27.1 percent from the field overall, while the Cavaliers finished at a respectable 46.3 percent.

"We were locked in. Did they miss open shots? Yes," Bennett said. "But did we make them shoot contested shots the majority of the time? Yes. ... I thought our guys came ready to go."

Tech's young team had a very difficult time dealing with the Pack Line. Only star redshirt freshman Landers Nolley II found major success, tallying 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting (3 for 8 on 3s) with five rebounds and two assists, but he also committed five turnovers. And 15 of his points came in the first half (and yes, if you're doing the math, that means he scored all but two of the Hokies' first-half points). Key drew the Nolley matchup, and Bennett credited him and the help defense in slowing down the Atlanta native.

"I think that's a credit to the individual matchups and the guys being a little more aware," Bennett said. "Maybe the other guys doing a better job at times of not getting beat so Braxton had help a little more."

Tech entered the game leading the nation at just 9.5 turnovers per game, but UVa forced 13 and scored 14 points off of them.

"That's the most active our hands and our feet have been, and I think collectively, we were solid defensively knowing at any time, they can get rolling with four or five guys on the perimeter," Bennett said.

Like it did against Navy, Virginia even showed more willingness than usual to run after turnovers. On one sequence, Coleman stripped Jalen Cone, and Stattmann grabbed the ball, went the length of the court, and flipped up a creative shot while guarded to get the basket. With his length and ballhandling ability, I am fine with Stattmann doing more of that.

"If there's a miss or it is natural to get down the floor ... to either get in the offense or take [a quality shot] that's there, for sure, that's something that did take a step in the right direction," Bennett said. Then, dripping in sarcasm, Bennett quipped, "Now that we got rid of that bum Ty Jerome, we can get down the floor fast. Ty is probably like, 'Why didn't I get to go this fast coach?' I think he's doing OK where he is."

I loved how focused and fired up the guys looked during this victory, and also how different players stepped up on offense. Key seemed close to 100 percent, but Clark and Stattmann had their career highs, and Virginia didn't need a big game from Diakite or Huff to blow out an ACC team. That is a great sign going forward.

"I'm sure [the guys were ready]," Bennett said of the sharp edge of his players. "You're playing Virginia Tech; I certainly respect Coach Young and the job he's done thus far in the program. ... We were fortunate to get off to a 2-0 [ACC] start, in-state rival, great crowd, all that. I'm sure that helped, but as a coach, you want them to be locked in for every game. But they seemed to know what was at stake. Every game is so important for this group."

After the South Carolina game, I wrote that the trip to the dentist (aka, facing UVa, especially at JPJ) had not been as unpleasant as usual for opponents. Well, for the Hokies, this was like most of those previous visits. Painful.

"Um, hell no, good Lord," an exasperated but folksy Young said when asked if it was good that his youthful team has already had to face Duke and Virginia in ACC play.

"As good as [UVa is] defensively, I thought they were just exceptional today. ... Tip of the cap to those guys. They've got another very nice outfit."

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