Coming off of close but impressive back-to-back wins against NC State and Pittsburgh, the No. 9 Virginia men’s basketball team travelled to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers (14-3, 10-1 ACC) managed to knock off the Yellow Jackets (9-7, 5-5 ACC) by a score of 57-49 after trailing for a majority of the game.
Virginia came into the game with a 44-40 all-time record against Georgia Tech, including a 14-2 mark under the leadership of Coach Tony Bennett. Last time around, the Cavaliers came away with a nail-biting 64-62 win against the Yellow Jackets at John Paul Jones Arena.
The starting lineup for Virginia featured junior guard Kihei Clark, freshman guard Reece Beekman, junior guard Trey Murphy and senior forwards Sam Hauser and Jay Huff. Murphy struck first blood with a shot from beyond the arc and followed it up with two layups at the rim to put the Cavaliers up 7-2.
“The mindset overall is always to be aggressive,” Murphy said. “They were really hugged up on Sam [Hauser] so I was able to get a lot of easy curls to the basket and get a lot more scoring opportunities.”
In spite of trailing early, the Yellow Jackets stayed in the mix with a 13-2 scoring run that built up a 15-9 advantage. Contributors to the run included senior guard Jose Alvarado and junior forward Khalid Moore who both connected on three-pointers.
As the game approached the eight-minute mark in the opening half, Virginia had turned the ball over eight times and had not scored in over five minutes. Beekman answered the bell as he sank a three-pointer to bring the score to 15-12. Hauser hit his first shot a possession later to pull the Cavaliers within a single point.
While the two squads went back and forth in the home stretch of the opening frame, it was Murphy who registered six-straight Virginia points. Huff blocked his third shot of the half just before the buzzer sounded to hold the Yellow Jackets to a 26-20 lead.
“With them going under ball screens and sort of staying in the lane on Kihei and Reece, we just needed to make some outside shots to loosen it up,” Bennett said. “I kinda just tried to wind our guys up at halftime saying throw caution to the wind but be sound, but be aggressive.”
Trailing by just six points heading into the locker room, the Cavaliers shot an atrocious 8/24 from the floor compared to Georgia Tech’s 9/28. In addition, Virginia’s 10 turnovers in the first half proved to be a crucial improvement point before the start of the second half. The Cavaliers’ 20 points marked the team’s lowest offensive output in a half for the season.
In the second half, Virginia came out swinging with two quick buckets from Huff and Hauser. Next, Clark and Beekman kept the ball rolling connecting on a three-pointer and a reverse lay-up, respectively. As the Cavaliers grasped a 29-26 lead, Georgia Tech came roaring back, going on a 10-2 run to retake a 36-31 lead.
Despite the Yellow Jacket run, a three-pointer from Clark and deep two-point jump shot by Huff once again made the game a one-point affair at 37-36. As the clock ticked under seven minutes, Georgia Tech nursed a 44-41 lead. However, it was the last time the Yellow Jackets would lead.
A jumper from Hauser followed up with a bucket from Clark propelled Virginia back into the lead at 45-44. In the ensuing possessions, Clark and Murphy hit a three-pointer each for Virginia while senior guard Tomas Woldetensae scored on a baseline drive to cap off a 12-1 scoring run.
“[The team] stayed in my corner through the whole game [and] told me to keep shooting with confidence,” Clark said. “So I made some shots and it feels good to pull that one out.”
Regardless of Alvarado’s efforts to get Georgia Tech back into the game with a shot, Huff stepped up to seal the deal with a highlight-worthy slam dunk and yet another block on the other end of the floor. The Cavaliers went on to clinch the victory by a score of 57-49.
“I thought Jay was really active blocking shots,” Bennett said. “I really thought that he covered for us and was so active rim protecting today and we needed all of that.”
Murphy led Virginia with 18 points and was closely followed by Clark who posted 14 points of his own. On the other side, it was Alvarado and senior guard/forward Jordan Usher who led the Yellow Jackets, recording 18 and 12 points, respectively. Virginia outscored Georgia 37-23 in the second half to come from behind and capture their third win in a row.
Next up, the Cavaliers will return home to face North Carolina on Feb. 13. The matchup will be broadcasted live on ESPN starting at 6 p.m.