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No. 2 men’s basketball takes on Virginia Tech under national spotlight

With a No. 1 ranking in play, the Cavaliers try to lock up a crucial victory

<p>Senior Devon Hall will look to lead his team to victory against Virginia Tech Saturday night.</p>

Senior Devon Hall will look to lead his team to victory against Virginia Tech Saturday night.

Saturday night’s clash between the No. 2 Virginia men’s basketball team and Virginia Tech is far from a typical rivalry game. With a huge loss for No. 1 Villanova at the hands of St. John’s Wednesday, the Cavaliers (23-1, 12-0 ACC) have to chance to achieve something they haven’t in 35 years, when legend Ralph Sampson was running the floor — a No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll.

As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, Virginia will have to accomplish this with the eyes of the entire country on them, as ESPN’s “College GameDay” travels to cover the pivotal matchup.

To many college basketball fans, this wasn’t the year Virginia was supposed to capture national attention. Written off before the season after a disappointing exit in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, followed by several transfers, the Cavaliers were left off of the preseason polls and picked to finish as a middle-of-the-pack ACC team. As March creeps up, Virginia has a chance to finally put the nail in the coffin of all the doubts by becoming only the fifth team to go from unranked to No. 1 in the poll era.

Things looked bleak for Virginia’s chances at the top spot for a while on Thursday. Down 10 points at halftime to Florida State on the road, ESPN gave the Cavaliers less than a 30 percent chance to pull out a win and preserve their ranking.

With their backs against the wall, the Cavaliers once again proved their resilience in a wild second-half rally. Their offense regained rhythm and defense shored up, holding the Seminoles without a field goal for the final nine minutes of the game. The end result was yet another tough ACC victory for Virginia, preserving a pristine 12-0 conference record.

“We got punched in the mouth,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “And for a while, we were kind of lukewarm on how we responded. And in the second half, we responded. We got back to saying, `OK.' And that leadership of [senior guard Devon Hall] and how he played, and how guys made plays were the difference.”

With a 17-point performance against the Seminoles, Hall continued his stellar senior season, which has seen him develop into a crunch-time scorer and leader. He reaffirmed his status as the best perimeter defender on the team as he helped hold Seminole junior guard Terance Mann — Florida State’s leading scorer — to three points on 1-4 shooting. Hall has stayed razor sharp from three-point range, ranking fifth in the ACC with a 45.6 percent make rate from deep.

The three ball will be a major factor in Saturday’s showdown at John Paul Jones Arena. Virginia Tech (17-7, 6-5 ACC) leads the ACC in three-point percentage at 39.8 while attempting only the fifth most in the conference. Squarely on the bubble of making the NCAA Tournament, the Hokies will be salivating for a big win to help out their tournament resume with time running out. In a signature win over then-No. 10 North Carolina several weeks ago, the Hokies made 12 triples to keep the Tar Heels out of striking distance all the way.

In the January matchup between the teams at Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers took away the Hokies’ beloved three ball, holding them to 2-12 from beyond the arc. Virginia translated that into arguably its most convincing win of the season — a 78-52 blowout that saw four players hit double figures and 16 turnovers forced by the pack-line defense.

Since that loss, Virginia Tech has scored more than 80 points in eight of nine games. However, the Hokies still have have looked shaky on defense, allowing more than 90 points in losses against Louisville and Florida State.  

In full desperation mode for a tournament bid, Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams will likely have his team ready to play its best game of the season at Virginia. The home-court advantage will be rampant on Saturday — with College Gameday, the Commonwealth Clash and the high stakes drawing a massive crowd to JPJ. But, Virginia must be able to fight through the noise to avoid disaster. If the Cavaliers pull out a win, they will be in prime position to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament when the selection committee releases its first seeding update on Sunday. Falter, and the tournament picture gets much blurrier.

Despite the pressure and scrutiny, the Cavaliers relish the position they are in as a validation of their program.

“We’re on a different path,” sophomore guard Ty Jerome said. “We’re at the point where we’re on a quest of excellence. It doesn’t come along often. It comes along maybe once every 10 years.”

The Commonwealth Clash is set to tipoff at 6 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena.

Correction: This article previously misstated that Virginia men’s basketball could possibly become the first team in the poll era to go from being unranked in the preseason to No. 1. The Cavaliers would actually become the fifth team to do so.