Virginia Turns Fear Factors Into A Nightmare For Syracuse

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Kihei Clark

File Photo by Jon Golden

SYRACUSE — When the proposal to open up the season with conference games for the first time in ACC history came up, Virginia coach Tony Bennett confessed there was a bit of a “fear factor” that raced through his thoughts.

The fear was that not only was Bennett’s reigning national champions opening up with a conference opponent, but the Cavaliers were playing Syracuse on the road, making UVA the first defending national champ since 1969 (UCLA) to open the following season on the road.

“At the Carrier Dome, the 2-3 zone, against a Hall of Fame coach,” Bennett said, reciting why maybe it wasn’t the best idea, especially considering that his team had lost 66 percent of its scoring and 77 percent of its 3-point shooting from the championship season.

All those fears were laid to rest midway through the second half when the Cavaliers went on a tear, blitzing the Orange 16-4 during a nine-minute span. That scoring spurt allowed UVA to take a six-point cushion (30-24) and balloon the advantage of 46-28 as the Carrier Dome began to empty out.

“Defense and rebounding were significant for us,” Bennett said of his team’s 48-34 win. “Two new and inexperienced teams playing, we made just enough plays offensively.”

The staple of “Bennett Ball,” Virginia’s defense held Syracuse to its fewest points since 1945. No, that is not a misprint. It’s the fewest points the Cavaliers have surrendered to an ACC opponent since 2015 when Georgia Tech only got 28.

Virginia’s defense completely shut down Syracuse’s offense. The Orange, with one returning starter in Elijah Hughes, shot only 23.6 percent (13 for 55) against Bennett’s vaunted “Pack-Line” defense, and a mere 17 percent from the new, longer 3-point line (5-29). Meanwhile, the visiting Wahoos dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Orange, 47-28.

There was much to celebrate for Virginia, sporting four new starters itself. Everyone knew this was going to be a front-court heavy team, and the Cavaliers lived up to their reputation.

Mamadi Diakite, who tested the NBA waters before returning to the program, finished as the leading scorer with 12 points, making 6 of his 10 field-goal attempts, all inside the 3-point arc. Front-court mate Jay Huff, clocking 29 minutes while coming off the bench, posted a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds, also all inside the 3-point line.

Sophomore point guard Kihei Clark played a significant role, never coming out of the game, while also posting a double-double with 10 points, 11 rebounds (yes, he’s 5-foot-9), and added seven assists.

One of UVA’s freshmen also showed that he arrived in Charlottesville with a defensive prowess that will make him valuable immediately. Casey Morsell, brought up in the high-quality metro D.C. high school league — in addition to high-level AAU play — adjusted right out of the gate.

Morsell handcuffed Syracuse’s Hughes, who also played 40 minutes and was held to 4-for-14 shooting (3 of 10 from the arc) and 14 points, the only Orange player in double figures.

When Morsell wasn’t smothering Hughes, teammate Braxton Key was, making it a frustrating night for the ‘Cuse standout.

“This team has to be good defensively,” Bennett said in the postgame. “I sometimes ask, ‘Who are we?’ We are a defensive team.”

The Cavaliers used the same tactics as they have for quite some time against Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. A mobile big man in the high post who can hit the shot, drive to the hoop and either score or pass to another player down low, or kick it outside for a 3.

“Mamadi was really good in the high post,” Bennett said. “Jay (Huff) had real good practices leading up to the game.”

Using Clark for the entire 40 was part of the plan going in. Bennett said he monitored his point guard throughout the game to see if he was gassed.

“During timeouts, I would ask him, ‘You okay?’” the coach said.

“Yup,” was always Clark’s reply.

“He’s got a motor,” Bennett said. “I figured he would have to be out there most of the game.”

The funny thing was Clark, as the shortest man on the floor, almost leading the team in rebounding with 11, one shy of 7-footer Huff.

“I was reading out the rebounds to the team in the locker room, ‘Jay 12, Braxton 10 … Kihei 11?’” Bennett said with a laugh.

Huff didn’t find it quite as humorous.

“If [Kihei’s] listening to this (postgame interview), you’re welcome,” Huff grinned. “He took some of mine. I’ve got to box out and go up and get those. He can just stroll in there and get a few.”

Diakite was just as surprised.

“Every time I turned around, Kihei was getting the ball,” Diakite said.

When informed that the little guard had 11 boards, Diakite bristled.

“What? 11?,” he said. “I didn’t expect that out of the little dude. My job was to box out, but I’d go to get the ball and he already had it.”

Clark couldn’t help but giggle a bit when he heard about his teammates’ reaction to his rebounding effort.

“My teammates did a great job at boxing out,” Clark said.

Several of his rebounds came courtesy of Syracuse’s inaccuracy from the 3-point line. Those are long rebounds that often travel over the heads of the big men in the lane. Virginia made that a point of emphasis after a preseason scrimmage against Georgetown where the Cavaliers experienced the same situation, but were often beaten to the ball.

Still, getting a significant ACC road win right out of the gate was a big deal.

“Playing against Syracuse’s 2-3 on the road, we did a great job,” Clark said. “Getting the ball inside the way we did and scoring second-chance baskets was really solid.”

Clark was right. Virginia outscored the Orange, which will count on its frontcourt a lot this season, 26 to 16 in the paint.

“It was a weird first game,” Huff said. “This arena is different, and facing a 2-3 zone, when we’re more accustomed to man-to-man. But it feels great to get a win here. There has been some crazy games, but to start off the season with an ACC game is a little strange.”

Diakite said he didn’t know how many points or rebounds he had, and didn’t really care.

“A win is better than scoring 30 points,” he said. 

Anyway, this was more about defense.

“That is not going to change,” the senior said. “At Virginia, you have to help the team offensively and defensively. Defensively, practice is way harder than the games.”

All things considered, Bennett was pleased that his team managed to overcome the fear factors and never looked back. Still, there was enough that didn’t suit him that he can work the Cavaliers in practice before their home opener Sunday evening against JMU.

“The 3-point shooting has to be improved,” Bennett said.

He was right. The Cavaliers were less than effective from the arc, making only 4 of 25 (16 percent).

Clark led that department, too, making half of those (2-8).

No fear.

Comments

  1. Robin Wells says:

    Well, if Kihei gets the rebound, it cuts down on the passes & turn overs!

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