It was, in a way, an asphyxiation.
Well, what do you know? Virginia christened a frontier of a new season on Wednesday night by inviting Syracuse into the barbed twilight zone until it looked disfigured and then devoured, its plans gone in a froth of harried frustration and bad shots.
The 48-34 outcome was, in a way, an asphyxiation, with the oxygen exiting the Carrier Dome gradually until it went into a full outward rush just before the five-minute mark. That’s when many of the 22,518 in attendance noticed the immovable “28” beneath Syracuse’s name at that time and made droves in departure.
On few nights, after all, had this kingdom seen its home team strain and gasp to reach 30, which Syracuse managed to do — whew — with 4:23 remaining. So hello again, Virginia, and welcome back to 1-0, and to 67-6 across three seasons. Go ahead and add the distinction of a pulverizing win as the first defending national champion in 52 years to grapple with a true road opener, the product of rambunctious Atlantic Coast Conference scheduling mapped out last year well before the mirth of Minneapolis.
“We just are not ready to play against that defense,” said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said, moments after he ended the first game of his 44th season by walking toward the handshake with Virginia Coach Tony Bennett while the final seconds still ticked away, as if hoping that might hasten the ticking.
A howling box score made a dramatic backup of Boeheim’s comment on one of those Virginia nights when an opponent’s shooting numbers crossed over from dismal into horrifying. Syracuse’s eyesore of a path went from 1-for-14 shooting to 6-for-22, to 8-for-35, to 10-for-42, to 12-for-51, before the whole morass came to a closing thud on 13-for-55. That meant that over four meetings across three seasons, Syracuse has shot 72-for-213 against Virginia, or 33.8 percent.
So Boeheim’s observations sounded like maybe something from out of the pre-2019 past, before De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome took their 1,667 points, 520 rebounds and 355 assists from last season and went off with them to Atlanta, Sacramento and Phoenix. He said, “You’re never going to be prepared for Virginia. They’re the best defensive team in the country, year in and year out.” And: “They scored 10 points in the first 10 minutes. The problem is, we scored 2.” And: “You don’t want to play them the first game. Offenses take a little bit more time.” And: “We won’t play anybody better defensively this year, except when we have to play them again.”
And: “I thought they’d be better defensively than last year because, I know Tony won’t agree with me, but I think we were able to get by (Kyle) Guy sometimes, and (Ty) Jerome.” With his unseasoned team, he felt less options at getting by Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key and Jay Huff et al.
With his early-season offense turned to mulch, he went ahead and reckoned out loud that teams shouldn’t play teams this good this early, tacking the blame to the ACC’s new “money grab” for 20 conference games.
Meanwhile, Virginia had to win the kind of game Bennett teams long have known how to win. It had to grind the opponent into particles. It had to rely foremost upon the defense built from its defensive heritage. “Tonight it had to” carry the team, Bennett said. “The defense and the rebounding were significant for us. Those were two very new, inexperienced teams playing. You saw some struggles from both teams. But I thought we made just enough plays offensively.”
The November bugs that appeared, such as the 4-for-25 three-point shooting, faded against the grand, clanging sweep of the thing. Freshman Casey Morsell looked polished for a newcomer and often guarded Elijah Hughes, Syracuse’s foremost threat who went 4-for-14 with 14 points. Key looked ferocious. Huff and Diakite made some swell moves inside now and then. Quarterback Clark looked steady even if Syracuse’s second-half press, perhaps a horror to Virginia fans with precise memory banks, did cause some bother.
None of all of that mattered as much as Virginia’s will.
On the boards, Syracuse spent the night taking a 47-28 mauling from various Cavaliers including the 7-footer Huff with 12 rebounds to the muscular Key with 10 to the March Madness star Diakite with six, with yet one further twist.
Clark, 5-foot-9 as listed and often reminded, snared 11, often when Orange players who might have shadowed him went tussling among the trees. As Bennett read off to his team the stats he liked best, he did pause well upon that one.
Had Virginia, with its 14 assists to 7, not committed 16 turnovers to 9, the score might have gotten ugly.
Oh no, wait: It was ugly,
“You know, you’ve got to understand,” Boeheim said. “A couple of seniors out there. A couple of juniors. They’ve got some veteran guys that are physical. Very strong.” And while Diakite led Virginia with 12 points, Huff had 11 and Clark had 10, Virginia had more than enough rocks for the rock fight.
“And I know neither team was high-level in certain ways,” Bennett said, “but I’m proud of our guys, how hard they worked to prepare, how well they defended. . . . I know we have to be good defensively. That will be very important for how good we can be.”