CHARLOTTESVILLE — One of the most highly anticipated men’s basketball games in the commonwealth of Virginia in decades featured surprisingly little drama: No. 4 Virginia surged to a commanding lead in the first half on its way to an 81-59 win against No. 9 Virginia Tech on Tuesday night.
In the first matchup with both schools ranked in the Associated Press top 10, Virginia got 21 points from De’Andre Hunter and used three-point marksmanship along with its usual unforgiving defense to move into first place alone in the ACC and remain one of two undefeated programs in Division I.
The Cavaliers (16-0, 4-0) shot 58.5 percent, including 13 for 24 from beyond the arc, to avenge an overtime loss last season to Virginia Tech, also at John Paul Jones Arena, and stake their claim as perhaps the best team in the country. They have won their first four ACC games by an average of more than 20 points.
“The scores and all that are a little overrated,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said in his typically humble fashion. “We’re midway through or whatever we are in the season, but you’re early in the conference. We’ve played well. We’ve shot it well and played well and defended pretty solid [in] our two home ACC games. The league will test you, but obviously I like how we’ve withstood so far.”
Point guard Ty Jerome added 14 points and a career-high 12 assists before exiting to rousing applause with 1:25 left in the second half. Kyle Guy chipped in 15 points, going 3 for 5 from beyond the arc.
In front of an announced crowd of 14,623, the closest Virginia Tech (14-2, 3-1) came in the second half was 48-34 with 15:45 left. But the Cavaliers’ margin ballooned to 25 several minutes later after Braxton Key made a three-pointer, Jerome tipped in his missed jumper and Guy made a pair of free throws.
Guy’s foul shots were the result of a technical foul assessed to Hokies guard Justin Robinson with 9:32 left. With Kihei Clark, who had a cast removed from his wrist this week, defending him for much of the game, Robinson finished with nine points on 2-for-7 shooting, including 1 for 5 from beyond the arc.
Guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker led Virginia Tech with 19 points. Ahmed Hill (14 points) was the only other Hokies player to score in double figures as Virginia Tech became the fourth ranked team to lose to Virginia this season.
“It’s a little bit of pick your poison [against Virginia] because I don’t think that there’s necessarily ever a non-shooter or a non-offensive player on the floor,” Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams said of the Cavaliers. “They’re incredibly sound in what they do. They’re doing more than what they’ve done in the past.”
This installment of the contentious rivalry known as the Commonwealth Clash featured the only two undefeated programs in the mighty ACC after top-ranked Duke lost in overtime Monday night to visiting Syracuse.
Virginia draws the Blue Devils on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the gravity of that showdown, despite Duke’s national standing and storied tradition, remains several rungs below the significance of facing the Hokies, who dealt the Cavaliers their only conference loss last season, 61-60 in overtime.
That Virginia Tech has emerged as a viable contender for commonwealth supremacy has ratcheted up the stakes in what historically has been a one-sided affair. The Cavaliers had won 91 of the 147 previous meetings, but the teams had split the most recent six games, including two in overtime.
The upswing for the Hokies has coincided with the arrival of Williams. Since taking over five seasons ago, Williams directed Virginia Tech to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances for the first time in more than three decades. The Hokies are seeking a third straight NCAA tournament berth for the first time in school history.
Their only loss through the first 15 games this season was a 63-62 stumble at Penn State. Virginia Tech has thrived in many statistical categories, including ranking second in the ACC in scoring defense and first in three-point shooting percentage.
The Cavaliers were second in defensive efficiency nationally through their first 15 games and shooting 47.4 percent, the highest mark under Bennett, as well as 39.8 percent from three-point range and 77.2 percent from the free throw line, both the best in school history.
Underscoring the magnitude of the game, fans packed the arena well before tip-off, with Virginia supporters clapping and chanting, “Let’s go, Wahoos!” to all but drown out the voice of the public address announcer during Virginia Tech player introductions.
Then the place erupted on the game’s first possession when Jerome delivered a one-handed pass to Mamadi Diakite for an uncontested layup. Several minutes later, Jerome swished a three-pointer from the corner and let the Hokies’ bench know about it while running back on defense.
Jerome scored or assisted on 11 of Virginia’s 17 first-half field goals as the Cavaliers forged a 44-22 lead going into the locker room. The highly efficient first half for Virginia included making 10 of 14 three-pointers and shooting 68 percent overall.
The final sequence of the first half also yielded a three-pointer when Clark collected a pass from Jerome and swished a deep jumper from the right corner baseline in front of the Hokies’ bench as the buzzer sounded.
“We punched them in the mouth,” Guy said, “and they fought back a little bit, and we just kept our foot on the pedal.”