CHARLOTTESVILLE — Marco Anthony had played just six minutes total since the Virginia Cavaliers opened their ACC schedule on Dec. 30, but early this week in practice, the freshman guard found himself working with the starters for the second-ranked college basketball team in the nation.
The peculiar circumstance unfolded in part because Devon Hall (flu-like symptoms) and De'Andre Hunter (sore ankle) were held out for precautionary reasons, leaving Anthony to wonder if he would receive playing time during Wednesday night's game against visiting Louisville.
Then came an announcement on Tuesday from Coach Tony Bennett that guard Nigel Johnson, a top reserve, was suspended for three games for violating team rules.
Bennett "was saying all throughout the week: 'Just be ready. Be ready to come out and play,' " Anthony said following a 74-64 victory over the Cardinals. "That really let me know this was going to be the game."
The preparation paid off with a career performance. Anthony scored 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting in 18 minutes while committing no turnovers against Louisville's pressure-oriented defense, which ranked third in the ACC in turnovers forced (14.5 per game).
Anthony made two three-pointers, the second of which pushed the Cavaliers in front, 47-34, midway through the second half. With 6:46 left in the game, Anthony scored his final points on a twisting layup between multiple defenders.
The Cavaliers (21-1, 10-0), who next face Syracuse (15-7, 4-5) on the road Saturday afternoon, won for the 13th consecutive time and extended their best start in ACC play since 1980-81. They took a three-game lead in the conference standings over Duke and Clemson.
In doing so, Anthony added his name to the list of capable backups on whom Bennett can lean even when Johnson becomes available again.
"Marco is sure-handed," Bennett said of the sturdy, 6-foot-4 guard. "He is a strong young man. Louisville is a tough team to get thrown into the fire in this setting, but he was very poised. That is a credit to him."
Pregame jitters dissipated, Anthony recalled, when he watched his first shot fall through the net with 8:18 to go until halftime.
Soon after that jumper, Anthony gathered a pass from Hunter and swished a three-pointer from the left corner for a 21-16 lead, much to the delight of Virginia fans mostly unfamiliar with the San Antonio native.
"I'm real confident in myself because of all the hard work I put in," said Anthony, whose previous high in scoring was five points against Savannah State on Dec. 19. "Just being ready for the moment."
Anthony said most of the Texas college basketball powers did not recruit him heavily. Baylor showed interest, according to Anthony, but did not make a scholarship offer.
Other schools in his home state that courted Anthony included Texas-Arlington, Texas-El Paso and Texas at San Antonio, but the high school honor student chose Virginia in part because of its academic standing as well as the caliber of basketball.
"He works his butt off, so I'm happy for him and to see him go out there and play that well," Hall said.
It's not lost on Anthony that this year's Final Four is to be played in his home town, although he, his teammates and Bennett have deflected questions about looking ahead to the NCAA tournament with eight games left in the regular season, plus the ACC tournament.
Still, the Cavaliers have put themselves in position to secure a No. 1 seed thanks to perhaps the most complete résumé in the country. Virginia's signature win this season came against No. 4 Duke, 65-63, Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Cavaliers had not won since 1995, a span of 17 straight games.
Duke is fifth in the NCAA's Rating Percentage Index, a metric the committee considers when evaluating a school's tournament profile.
The NCAA tournament committee has indicated it will be placing greater value on road and neutral-court victories, and the Cavaliers also have a win in Brooklyn over Rhode Island, No. 9 in RPI, and at Virginia Tech (62nd).
Virginia beat Syracuse at home, 68-61, on Jan. 9. But its most recent trip to the Carrier Dome, among the most inhospitable venues in the country for opponents, resulted in a 66-62 loss on Feb. 4, 2017. The Cavaliers were unable to hold a 34-22 halftime lead, with Syracuse making 14 of 19 shots (74 percent) in the second half.
The Orange also beat Virginia in the teams' previous matchup, 68-62, in the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, storming back from a 16-point deficit in the second half in the regional finals in Chicago.
"Every time you play basketball is another opportunity, so we should have heightened focus every game," said Cavaliers sophomore guard Ty Jerome, who made two three-pointers in the final minutes on Wednesday to help blunt a Cardinals rally. "Our focus should be at 100 percent every time we step on the floor, whether it is a practice or a game, no matter the previous result."
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