Photo by Matt Riley/Virginia athletics
“Who’s going to get the bucket?”
It’s the question that’s asked in every gym across America as a basketball game hangs in the balance down the stretch. As the clock bleeds down to the final minutes and every dribble is magnified, it’s a question that doesn’t even need to be spoken out loud. Every coach, player and fan alike knows that in order to be victorious, someone on the squad must step up and drill a shot when it matters most.
The Difference a Year Makes
On this date last year, the Virginia Cavaliers were ranked third in the entire land. At 20-1, their lone loss came at Cameron Indoor Stadium to Duke by just two points. Tony Bennett’s team was rolling, and it was an embarrassment of riches as far as go-to guys late in games.
Need a clutch three? Run Kyle Guy off a Jack Salt screen. Want a high-percentage shot? Toss the rock to De’Andre Hunter and let him create a mismatch. And if the defense denies both, just let Ty Jerome pull up from 25 feet away.
Fast-forward a year, and Jerome isn’t the only one from that bunch shooting from NBA range on a daily basis.
When Guy, Jerome and Hunter all declared for the NBA Draft following their magical title run, it signaled an upcoming transition period for this Virginia basketball program. In order for this season’s unit to be successful, former role players were going to need to grow into viable starters. The newcomers would be forced to contribute the minute they stepped through the door.
Baptism by Fire
As with any baptism by fire, the results are going to be a mixed bag. Flashes of brilliance will be followed by stretches of unpolished play. Experience is the world’s greatest teacher. There have been many teachable moments for the Cavaliers this season through the first half of conference play.
Entering Wednesday night’s contest against Clemson, Virginia stood at 6-4 in ACC play. Some said given that each loss came down to the final possession or so, the team could easily have been 10-0 in conference play as February began. Just as realistically, the Wahoos could have registered a 3-7 first half of the ACC slate.
But given the unavoidable learning curve that roster turnover presents, each and every close game is a new adventure. With this unseasoned Virginia team in this most unpredictable college hoops season, winding up in the center of either extreme was perhaps the most predictable result.
Wednesday vs. Clemson
After the ball went into the air on Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia’s contest against Clemson began to carry a familiar feel to it. Bennett’s squad came out swinging: building a double-digit lead in the first eight minutes, and retaining it through halftime.
It felt like the kind of midweek game last year’s ‘Hoos would turn in against a middle-of-the-pack team: taking an early lead, suffocating the opposition and coasting to the finish line. But then reality set it. This incarnation of Virginia basketball plays only close games. For all the nail-biters avoided the last six years, call this season a market correction.
The Cavaliers went over five minutes without scoring, and as a result, saw their lead shrink rapidly in the second half. As Clemson forward Aamir Sims canned a triple with six minutes to play, the difference in the scoreline became just two points. As the teams traded possessions in the following minutes, it became apparent that another bumpy ride to the finish would ensue.
In a one-score game with 90 seconds remaining, Braxton Key rose and fired from the top of the arc. The confident shot soared high over the Tigers’ defense before splashing through the nylon, paving a clear path toward victory for the hometown Cavaliers. The final: Virginia 51, Clemson 44.
Coming Through in the Clutch
Virginia now finds itself in the midst of a three-game winning streak. But what’s far more impressive than W’s and L’s is the experience gained, and the lessons learned. Ten days ago, it was Jay Huff sticking a clutch triple in the final minute to give the ‘Hoos the lead in an overtime win at Wake Forest.
Speaking of trifectas, it was Tomas Woldetensae bursting onto the scene with seven of them to pace all scorers in Winston-Salem with 21 points. Last Tuesday night, Kihei Clark was the man who sunk the game-winning reverse layup off the glass to propel Virginia to their biggest win of the year — over No. 5 Florida State. On Wednesday night. Key got the bucket when the Cavaliers needed it in the worst kind of way.
Winning games is one thing. But if experience is the world’s greatest teacher, the 2019-20 Virginia Cavaliers are getting a lifetime of lessons throughout the first three months of the campaign. Baptism by fire – although it can be painful to watch at periods – is the fastest ticket to growth and maturity for inexperienced teams and players.
Registering these last three wins in a row has done much more for Virginia than just fortify its resume for the NCAA selection committee. Each player in head coach Tony Bennett’s lineup has received invaluable experience as we begin to head down the final stretch. With still a month and change remaining in the regular season, three match-ups against top-10 teams remain.
With seemingly unlimited potential for growth still there for the taking, the Cavaliers have a unique opportunity in front of them. They can continue to push the needle in terms of their tournament odds, while simultaneously evolving into the kind of team that can make some noise on college basketball’s biggest stage… Again.