Virginia downed Clemson in Charlottesville Wednesday night 51-44 in a defensive battle. The Cavaliers (15-6, 7-4 ACC) held a lead for the majority of the bout — despite a late comeback by the Tigers (11-11, 5-7) — securing an ACC win to solidify their top-four spot in the ACC.
Senior forward Mamadi Diakite missed two free-throws on Virginia’s first possession, but following a missed three-pointer from Clemson junior forward Aamir Simms, Virginia senior guard Braxton Key sank a three-pointer to put Virginia on the board.
Junior forward Jay Huff then pushed the momentum towards Virginia even further with a block on the defensive end, following it up with an alley-oop from sophomore guard Kihei Clark to put Virginia up 5-0 early. After a tough hook shot from Huff, Tiger sophomore guard John Newman III got his first points of the game from a mid-range jumper.
Nevertheless, the Cavaliers embarked on a 7-0 run — catalyzed by a second alley-oop from Huff — to extend their lead to 14-2 with 12:55 to play in the first-half. However, Clemson then took advantage of a 4:36 Virginia dry spell, scoring five unanswered points to cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 14-7.
Sophomore guard Kody Stattmann ended Virginia’s scoring drought with a tough lay-up for his first points since the NC State game Jan. 20. Just over a minute later, Diakite extended the Cavaliers’ lead back to double-digits, draining a three-pointer from the left wing to make it 19-7.
The Tigers once again looked to threaten, going on a 7-2 run after Diakite’s triple, but Key responded with five straight points to regain a 12-point lead for the Cavaliers with under a minute left in the first-half. Virginia held this 12-point advantage for the rest of the half, heading into the locker room up 26-14.
The Cavaliers looked more polished in the first-half, posting eight assists to just two turnovers, while scoring eight points off of seven Clemson turnovers. Additionally, Virginia allowed the Tigers to convert just 28.6 percent of their field goals, as Clemson had only four players score in the first 20 minutes.
“Virginia is just a really outstanding defensive team,” Clemson Coach Brad Brownell said. “They make it hard on you.”
The Cavaliers picked up where they left off defensively in the second half, as Huff got his third and fourth blocks of the game in the first 1:30. Nonetheless, Clemson went on an 8-4 run — hitting back-to-back three-pointers — to cut Virginia’s lead to 30-22 with 16:38 left in the game.
Stattmann once again responded to the Tigers’ attempt to swing momentum in their favor, draining a corner three-pointer to give the Cavaliers an 11-point lead. However, Virginia then went on a 5:26 scoring drought, as Clemson looked to chip away at the Cavaliers’ lead.
The Virginia defense stayed strong nonetheless, allowing the Tigers to score just four points over the drought, before Key reached double-digit scoring with a lay-up off of a baseline drive — making the score 35-26 with 9:31 left in regulation.
However, the Cavaliers sunk just one free throw in the subsequent 4:12, as the Tigers clawed back, cutting Virginia’s lead to 36-34 and taking advantage of untimely Virginia fouls. Key once again came to Virginia’s rescue, converting a corner three-pointer to extend the lead to five.
The two teams continued to battle back and forth, with Simms and Newman III keeping Clemson in the game as Virginia looked to pull away. After a Cavalier turnover, Tiger junior guard Clyde Trapp missed a wide-open three, and Key made Clemson pay with a three-pointer from the top of the arc.
Although Newman III sank a three-pointer with 39.2 seconds left — offering a glimmer of hope for the Tigers — the Virginia defense held strong, sealing a 51-44 win for the Cavaliers.
Key led all scorers with 19 points, while Huff posted a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Although Clark had just one point, the California native was an adept distributor, dishing out 10 assists.
“I thought Jay did a real good job with his length, with four blocks again and grabbed some rebounds and made some plays,” Coach Tony Bennett said on Huff’s strong performance.
Up next for Virginia is a tough road test against No. 5 Louisville Saturday. Tip-off at the KFC Yum! Center is set for 4 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.