Virginia Impressive in 65-52 Win Over #9 Florida State

Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter (12) takes it up strong against Florida State defender Mfiondu Kabengele. Photo by John Markon.

By Scott Ratcliffe

On a night when No. 4 Virginia needed a scoring lift going up against a tough Florida State team in the ACC opener Saturday, Braxton Key delivered his best performance so far wearing a Wahoo uniform.

The 6-foot-8, 225-pound junior transfer from the University of Alabama scored a season-high 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting (including a pair of 3-pointers) to go with his team-leading six rebounds, as the Cavaliers (13-0, 1-0 ACC) prevailed over the ninth-ranked Seminoles, 65-52, at John Paul Jones Arena.

It was the fourth 20-point performance of Key’s collegiate career, with the three other times coming in a Crimson Tide jersey. He went for a career-high 26 at Georgia during his freshman season with Bama. His previous season high was 13 against Middle Tennessee in the Bahamas.

“It felt great…,” Key said of his evening. “My teammates had confidence in me and I had confidence in myself, so just whenever I had any open look, I just tried to be a little bit more aggressive today than normal, and the shots were falling for me today.”

With Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter struggling a bit offensively, Key stepped up to compliment sharp-shooting Kyle Guy and gave the ‘Hoos the shot in the arm they needed. Jerome and Hunter, who each came in averaging 14 points a game, combined for just 12 points (each had 6) on 4-for-19 shooting.

As UVA coach Tony Bennett put it, Key used his versatility and took advantage of his opportunities when much of the focus was on stopping the team’s other scoring threats. It couldn’t have come at a better time for the Wahoos.

“Offensively, I thought he really let the game come. I mean, took the open shots when they were there and attacked when it was there — that’s his game,” said Bennett, who added that he was just as impressed with Key’s defense Saturday. “He’s kind of a complete player who does a little bit of everything and understands how to play.”

Opposing coach Leonard Hamilton was also impressed by Key’s performance.

“Key was such an instrumental part of their plan,” said Hamilton. “Him coming in and giving them that much offensive output really kind of set us back a little bit. Defensively, we did a decent job on the other guys, but he was the X-factor I thought today.”

UVA gave up a pair of quick 3-pointers — one by M.J. Walker to beat the shot clock and one by Phil Cofer — and trailed 8-4 with just over 16 minutes left in the first half. Guy answered, scoring 10 of the next 12 Virginia points, including a pair of perfectly swished 3-pointers, while the Seminoles (12-2, 0-1) misfired on 6 of their next 9 free-throw attempts after going over eight minutes without a field goal. Florida State missed 11 freebies for the contest.

Still, after Cofer finally got one to go, FSU only trailed by three, 18-15, with 7:28 remaining in the half. The visitors would only get two more shots to fall until the break, and the ‘Hoos seemingly couldn’t miss.

With the ‘Hoos leading by six, Key buried a straightaway triple off an assist from Guy, and then nailed another long ball before knocking an FSU pass loose and drawing a foul on the ensuing fast break, sinking a pair of free throws as a result.

With time winding down in the half, Jerome found Key open under the hoop, and Key laid it in for his 12th point to push Virginia’s lead to 42-23 at the half. It was all part of a 15-2 Cavalier run to close the opening stanza, and Guy picked up right where he left off out of the half, nailing a 3 on the Cavaliers’ opening possession.

The Wahoos were still comfortably in front midway through the second half, but hadn’t connected on a field-goal try in over seven minutes until Key went on his own little scoring spurt. Key hit a mid-range jumper (between a pair of crowd-pleasing FSU shot-clock violations) before Guy found him open for two more buckets, part of eight straight points by Key to push the lead to 27 with just over four minutes to play.

“We had to work so hard defending all the other guys that it gave Key the opportunity… and he made us pay,” Hamilton admitted.

Key left the floor with 2:50 remaining to a well-deserved ovation from the JPJ faithful.

“The fans were great, I think they’ve been great all season,” said Key, who is shooting a combined 13 for 18 (72 percent) from the field over his last three games. “Coming from where I came from, we didn’t have the fan support like this, so it’s great just to see fans — whether we’re playing Marshall or George Washington — and tonight I thought they did great and cheered us on.”

Key came into Saturday’s game averaging just 6.3 points per game, but leads the ‘Hoos in the rebounding category on the season. Hunter, who also pulled down six boards Saturday, said he wasn’t a bit surprised by Key’s offensive production, especially on a team with so many weapons.

“Any given day, anyone could have a good game,” said Hunter. “[Key] works his butt off in practice, and after practice and before practice he gets shots up, so I’m just really happy to see him have a game like that.”

Mamadi Diakite, who said he also sees flashes in practice all the time, added of Key’s big day: “He’s getting more and more comfortable playing with everyone, although he’s very new to the system. I think his [acclimation] to the system is very fast compared to all the other guys that we’ve had before, which is unbelievable. But yeah, I’m not surprised about what Braxton did today.”

Despite a late 12-0 FSU run over the final minute and a half to end the contest, the Cavaliers won handily, even though they shot just 32 percent (8 for 25) in the second half and were outscored by six over the final 20 minutes.

The ‘Hoos held the Seminoles’ top three scorers — Terance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele and Trent Forrest — to a combined six points on 2-for-12 shooting. Mann, who averaged a team-high 13.1 points a game coming in, did not score and missed his only two shots in 18-plus minutes off the bench. Mann bruised his heel last week against Winthrop, was on crutches and did not practice all week, as Hamilton pointed out after the game. It was the first game all season that he had not started.

The ‘Noles shot 34 percent for the contest. Cofer, playing in just his fourth game of the season, led the team with 9 points. PJ Savoy had 8 points and M.J. Walker added 7.

UVA shot 40.4 percent from the floor on the day (21 for 52) and 7 for 16 from long range (Key and Guy were the only Wahoos to score from beyond the arc Saturday). The Wahoos went 16 for 18 from the charity stripe and outrebounded FSU, 36-32. Virginia turned 15 Seminole giveaways into 21 points, and limited the visitors to 3 second-chance points.

Guy led all scorers with 21 points (5 for 6 from 3-point land). Aside from he and Key, no other Cavalier scored more than six on the night. Jerome finished 2 for 11 for 6 points to go with 6 assists and four rebounds.

Key is happy, “blessed and grateful” to have the opportunity to be a part of the winning environment at Virginia, and says with the teammates he has, it’s been a smooth transition for the most part.

“I think it’s taken a while but just with the type of guys we have — Kyle, Ty, Dre, Jack — I mean, we have a lot of leaders, not just one or two, so it’s kind of easy just to fizzle in and just find your spots.”

Wahoo fans hope the fizzling continues all season long.


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