And while Coach Tony Bennett and several players gladly broke down the specifics behind the defensive stand, sophomore guard Ty Jerome, not often at a loss for words, was speechless.
“I don’t even know,” Jerome said with an incredulous stare when asked how the Cavaliers (23-1, 12-0) managed the remarkable feat despite facing the second-highest scoring team in the ACC this season.
Backcourt mate Kyle Guy put it thusly: “For lack of better words, they felt they wouldn’t wear down, but we wear teams down. When you see that defense for 40 minutes, eventually we’re going to get our share.”
In limiting the Seminoles (17-7, 6-6) to their fewest points of the season, Virginia extended its winning streak to 15 and remained the lone school in the ACC without a conference loss. The triumph also continued Virginia’s best start in the conference since 1980-81.
Should the Cavaliers beat Virginia Tech on Saturday in Charlottesville, they probably will become No. 1 in the Associated Press rankings after St. John’s upset Villanova on Wednesday night. The Cavaliers have not been ranked first since December 1982.
“We know how good a team they are,” redshirt senior guard Devon Hall said of the Seminoles, who entered 10-1 at home and had beaten Virginia twice in a row. “So we knew coming into the game they were going to come at us, and we just had to respond.”
In addition to suffocating defense when it mattered most, Virginia settled the outcome for good when De’Andre Hunter made both ends of a one-and-one with 9.2 seconds to play for the final margin, sending much of the announced crowd of 10,657 to the exits.
Hunter had put the Cavaliers in front to stay at 48-47 with 5:59 remaining in the second half on a jumper with an assist from Jerome. The field goal was part of a 9-2 flurry that concluded with Jerome’s three-pointer for a 53-48 advantage with 4:23 left.
In foul trouble for much of the game, Hunter finished with four points but got plenty of help. Hall led the charge with a game-high 17 points, making 3 of 4 three-pointers, and Jerome added 15, with nine coming in the second half.
The Cavaliers were able to survive without starting forward Isaiah Wilkins, one of the team’s most complete players, for the final 1:52 after the senior collected his fifth personal foul. They also played their final contest without guard Nigel Johnson, a top reserve who had been given a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
“You hope you can outlast them,” Bennett said. “The way it was looking in the first half, it was coming in waves, and we had some breakdowns, and that cost us. Once we got established in the second half, I could tell, ‘Okay, it’s getting a little easier.’ We’re making some more plays. There’s so much energy. It was a gut-check time.”
During long stretches in the first half, Florida State was able to push the pace, succeeding where the vast majority of opponents have failed. The quick tenor of the game allowed the Seminoles to get clean looks before Virginia was able to set its defense, and Florida State capitalized, especially from beyond the arc.
The first four field goals of the game for Florida State came from three-point range, loosening up the interior. Seminoles guard Trent Forrest took advantage midway through the half by getting to the rim for a layup while drawing a second foul on Hunter, who promptly took a seat on the bench.
Forrest’s bonus foul shot opened a 20-13 lead that swelled to 29-18 following a 9-2 burst in which Wilkins scored Virginia’s only points. Soon after Wilkins’s basket, Seminoles 7-foot-4 center Christ Koumadje collected a lob pass from C.J. Walker for a two-handed dunk that brought Florida State supporters out of their seats and prompted a timeout by Bennett.
The shaky first half for Virginia included five turnovers, more than half its per-game average, and rushed shots that yielded a 32-22 deficit at intermission. It marked the first time the Cavaliers trailed at halftime since Jan. 21 at Wake Forest and the second time this season.
“I knew they were coming after us,” Bennett said. “This is tough, and I knew how they were playing. I knew their pressure, and just where we’re at being undefeated in the league, you know you’re going to get the target. You know you’re going to get people’s focused effort. I understood that.
“We were just fortunate to hang in there.”
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