ATLANTA — Virginia was due for a game like Saturday’s trip to Georgia Tech, when its offense didn’t click for long stretches and an opponent rose to the challenge in search of an upset. This, the Cavaliers have begun to realize, is what life will be like now that they have surged into second place in the ACC over the past six weeks.
For one afternoon, it didn’t seem to bother No. 20 Virginia one bit.
The Cavaliers broke open a back-and-forth affair en route to another double-digit conference victory, beating Georgia Tech, 64-45, at McCamish Pavilion to extend their best start in ACC play since 1981-82.
Virginia (19-5, 10-1) closed the contest on a 22-1 run and held the Yellow Jackets without a field goal over the final 9 minutes 52 seconds.
“I don’t want to say just turn it on, but to be able to find ourselves while they’re hitting shots and we’re struggling a little bit, it means a lot,” senior Akil Mitchell said. “We’ve got a bull’s-eye on our back, which I don’t think is something we’ve had all year.”
Guard Malcolm Brogdon again paced the Cavaliers with 14 points and 11 rebounds, his second consecutive double-double. But the sophomore hit only 3 of 12 field goal attempts, emblematic of a day in which Virginia shot just 39.6 percent and had to scrap its way to a seventh straight win.
The defining sequence came once Kammeon Holsey gave the Yellow Jackets a 44-42 lead on a three-point play. From there, the Cavaliers dug in on the defensive end and hit timely baskets.
Senior Joe Harris tied the score with two free throws, and a steal by forward Anthony Gill led to a Brogdon breakaway that ended with the sophomore getting fouled. After he made both free throws, Brogdon then intercepted a pass by Yellow Jackets big man Daniel Miller — with help from a well-timed post trap by Mitchell and Gill — and converted a fast-break dunk.
Virginia made another stop following a timeout by Georgia Tech Coach Brian Gregory, and Harris then hit a three-pointer off a set play to give the Cavaliers a 51-44 lead with 6:14 to go. It was Harris’s first field goal in more than 28 minutes, and Virginia Coach Tony Bennett would later call it “a dagger.”
Mitchell and Gill (11 points) soon followed with consecutive slams and the rout was on. The Yellow Jackets (12-12, 3-8) missed their last nine shots, went 1 of 6 from the free throw line and committed five turnovers. Virginia, which made 17 of 19 free throws, is 5-1 on the road against ACC competition after going just 2-7 away from John Paul Jones Arena during league play last season.
“I don’t know if Georgia Tech wore down, but our defense got better as the game progressed and it just made it difficult on them,” said Harris, who scored 11 points.
Virginia started the game 9 of 18 from the field but proceeded to hit just seven of its next 28 shots. The Cavaliers did enjoy a 46-25 rebounding advantage for the game, including 13 offensive rebounds.
Georgia Tech, on the other hand, hit five of its first eight three-pointers, including three from guard Chris Bolden (13 points). With forward Robert Carter Jr. back from a torn meniscus suffered six weeks ago and point guard Trae Golden in the lineup after aggravating a groin injury, the Yellow Jackets took a 30-29 lead into halftime.
It wasn’t long, though, before Virginia “looked at the score and it was like: ‘Wow. That was crazy,’ ” Gill said.
“We were a little shaky early, but I think our guys reestablished the formula for us and what we needed to do,” Bennett added. “We were fortunate.”