No. 8 Virginia men’s basketball shot its way past Syracuse 81-58 Monday night in Charlottesville, burying 14 three-pointers — including seven from senior forward Sam Hauser. The Cavaliers (11-2, 7-0 ACC) found an offensive rhythm against the Orange’s (9-5, 3-4 ACC) “2-3” zone defense and played sound on the other end to cruise to a victory.
Syracuse came into Charlottesville on the heels of a strong 18-point win against then-No. 16 Virginia Tech and was hoping to stifle a Virginia offense that was beginning to hit its stride heading into the contest.
Virginia struggled in its first few possessions against Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim’s infamous zone defense, but the Cavaliers soon began to find a rhythm. By the second media timeout, Virginia had built a 14-6 advantage as the team assisted on its first six buckets.
Much of that work was facilitated by junior guard Kihei Clark, who often worked his way into the high-post area and found the open man for easy baskets — assisting on three early alley-oops. Defensively, Virginia forced the Orange into tough, contested shots.
After a quick surge from Syracuse cut the deficit to four points, the Cavaliers swelled the lead to 27-18 with 6:04 left in the half following a three-pointer from junior guard Trey Murphy and back-to-back triples from Hauser.
The lead grew to 12 on yet another Hauser three-pointer — his fourth of the half — but the Orange ripped off an 8-0 run over the next two minutes — highlighted by three-pointers from junior forward Alan Griffin and junior guard Buddy Boeheim, the team’s first three-pointers of the game after missing its first seven attempts.
The Cavaliers closed the half strong, taking a 35-26 lead into the break. Hauser led all scorers with 15 points, coming entirely from five three-pointers, and Clark entered halftime with five of Virginia’s 11 assists.
The Cavaliers opened the second half strong with a pair of three-pointers from Hauser and senior forward Jay Huff, forcing Boeheim to use a quick timeout. By the half’s first media timeout with 13:46 left to play, Virginia had extended its lead to 49-33 with four of its five second half field goals coming from beyond the three-point arc.
Following Hauser’s seventh three-pointer of the game and a three-pointer on the other end from sophomore guard Joseph Girard, putting the score at 59-44, Boeheim called a timeout to set up a full-court press. Initially, the Cavaliers struggled, committing turnovers on four of their next five possessions.
Virginia faithful are regretfully familiar with Syracuse’s full-court defense, as it was that very scheme that evaporated a 15-point Cavalier lead with under 10 minutes to play against the Orange in the 2016 Elite Eight, barring Coach Tony Bennett from his first Final Four.
However, in this instance, Syracuse failed to capitalize on Virginia’s sloppiness, as the closest the Orange could get was a 65-54 deficit with 5:17 remaining. From there, the Cavaliers embarked on a 16-4 run to close out the game, winning 81-58.
The game marked the third time in ACC play this year that Virginia put together an 80-point offensive effort, one shy of the Cavaliers’ 2019 National Championship squad. Virginia was led by Hauser’s 21 points and seven rebounds, Huff’s 21 points — finally setting a new career-high after hitting the 18-point mark several times — and 12 rebounds, Murphy’s 16 points and Clark’s nine assists.
As a team, Virginia knocked down 14 three-pointers on 45.2 percent shooting from deep, with Hauser and Murphy combining to hit 11. For the game, the Cavaliers assisted 23 of their 29 made field goals.
“They have a next-pass mentality that you can see and the ability to shoot,” Bennett said. “I like how they’re sharing the ball, moving it and creating for each other.”
On the defensive end, Virginia was sound, holding Syracuse to under 40 percent shooting and only five three-pointers on 24 attempts. Notably, the Cavaliers showed significant improvement after allowing Georgia Tech to shoot 60 percent from beyond the arc over the weekend.
“We’re guarding the ball better,” Bennett said. “[Freshman guard] Reece Beekman has done a really good job — he’s guarded some terrific offensive players. ... On-ball defense can cover a lot of mistakes for your defense.”
With the win, Virginia remained undefeated in conference play, and the team will look to stay hot as they travel to Blacksburg to face in-state rival No. 20 Virginia Tech. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. Saturday, and the game will be televised on the ACC Network.