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Virginia pulls away from Georgia Tech, tightens grip on first place in ACC

Georgia Tech guard Jordan Usher blocks a shot by Virginia forward Sam Hauser during Wednesday’s game. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)
Georgia Tech guard Jordan Usher blocks a shot by Virginia forward Sam Hauser during Wednesday’s game. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

Midway through the second half of Virginia’s game at Georgia Tech on Wednesday night, Cavaliers junior Kihei Clark shot an air ball that prompted a curious reaction from Coach Tony Bennett, especially considering the point guard had also missed all four of his first-half field goal attempts.

He told Clark to keep shooting.

Clark complied, scoring all 14 of his points after halftime to spark a 57-49 win at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.

The No. 9 Cavaliers (14-3, 10-1) won their third game in a row and for the 10th time in 11 games to tighten their hold on first place in the ACC. They also swept the regular season series against Georgia Tech (9-7, 5-5) and beat the Yellow Jackets for an eighth consecutive time.

“When we went in at halftime, everyone was talking, and I talked to Kihei as well and told him, ‘Look, if they’re going to guard you like that, shoot the ball,’ ” Cavaliers guard Trey Murphy III said of Georgia Tech going under screens to defend Clark. “I had confidence in Kihei, and we had to make sure he knew that.”

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Virginia snapped the Yellow Jackets’ 11-game winning streak in home conference games dating from last season in part by limiting the ACC’s No. 3 scoring team to 23 points in the second half. Georgia Tech went just 4 for 21 on three-pointers (19 percent) and shot 36 percent overall.

The Cavaliers committed a season-high 17 turnovers but shot 64 percent in the second half, including 5 for 10 on three-pointers.

Murphy scored 18 points and Sam Hauser added eight points, 10 rebounds and five assists for Virginia, which used a 12-1 uprising in the second half to gain separation on the way to winning for an 18th time in 19 ACC games.

Point guard Jose Alvarado scored 18 points for Georgia Tech, which had not lost a conference game in Atlanta since the Cavaliers managed a 63-58 win Jan. 18, 2020.

The second half featured two of the ACC’s top point guards taking turns making improbable shots. First, Alvarado sank a step-back three-pointer in front of the raucous Yellow Jackets bench with the shot clock winding down for a 42-38 lead with 9:28 to play.

Clark had the ball in his hands shortly thereafter and noticed the shot clock was about to expire. He launched a three-pointer from the top right of the arc that swished through as the buzzer sounded.

“It’s nice to see the ball go through the rim,” said Clark, who went 4 for 6 from behind the arc in the second half. His teammates “stayed in my corner through the whole game, just told me to keep shooing with confidence, so [I] made some shots, and it feels good to pull that one out.”

Alvarado answered with a short jumper, but Virginia got back within 44-43 when Hauser curled around a screen near the free throw line, collected a pass from reserve guard Tomas Woldentensae and made the jumper on a catch-and-shoot with six minutes left.

Clark followed with a jumper for the lead and made his fourth three-pointer to extend the margin to 48-44 with 4:37 to go.

The Cavaliers continued to apply pressure on both ends of the court. They grew their lead to 55-47 with 2:31 to play after center Jay Huff controlled a loose ball amid a scramble and dunked emphatically with one hand.

“I loved the energy in there,” Murphy said of playing in front of 1,200 fans, one of the few times Virginia has played in front of a crowd this season. “I feel like road games are the best because you’ve got people going at you, and you’ve got a little bit more adversity. It was a great atmosphere in there, and I really appreciated it a lot.”

Since the start of ACC competition, Georgia Tech has been among the few schools to push the Cavaliers.

Virginia’s only conference loss came against rival Virginia Tech on Jan. 30, a 65-51 defeat. Two games before that lopsided result, Virginia rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half and held off a late surge to secure a 64-62 victory over the Yellow Jackets at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. Clark’s basket in the closing stages provided the winning points.

The Cavaliers held Georgia Tech well below its scoring average in that game, and this time, Virginia began with another defensive surge in the first half. The Yellow Jackets missed seven consecutive field goal attempts during an early five-minute stretch before Alvarado made a three-pointer.

Virginia struggled mightily to score as well, going seven minutes without a point before freshman guard Reece Beekman’s three-pointer from the top of the key drew the Cavaliers within three with 7:37 to play in the half.

Uncharacteristic turnovers plagued the Cavaliers in the first half; they committed 10 in the first 20 minutes and trailed 26-20 at the break. Virginia came in averaging nine turnovers per game, the lowest rate in the country, but reached double digits in that category for the fourth time in five games.

“We just stayed in there, and then all of a sudden got some great looks and some great stops that were required,” Bennett said. “You just stay attached when you’re trying to find your way, and that’s why I was happy. I thought our defense kept us attached.”

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