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Virginia keeps four-game winning streak alive in 63-53 victory over Georgia Tech

Despite some rocky moments in the second half, the Cavaliers managed to pull away late against a scrappy Yellow Jackets team

<p>Senior guard Kihei Clark was also instrumental in the victory with his calm court presence.</p>

Senior guard Kihei Clark was also instrumental in the victory with his calm court presence.

After an emotional win over Duke on Monday, Virginia returned to John Paul Jones Arena in a quest to achieve a four-game stretch of wins in the ACC. The Cavaliers (16-9, 10-5 ACC) -— who ran out to an early lead over the Yellow Jackets (10-14, 3-10 ACC) — secured a victory in a tricky post-Duke matchup against a struggling opponent. Senior forward Jayden Gardner dominated the scoring for the Cavaliers, notching a season-high 26 points while carving up the Yellow Jackets 1-3-1 zone defense. 

In the beginning of the first half, Virginia proved that it would not fold to a lowly ACC opponent after the win at Duke. After a few traded buckets, the Cavaliers would launch a massive 12 point run to race out to an 18-4 lead with 11:19 to play. Gardner — who scored nine points in the first 10 minutes — profited from easy opportunities on the baseline, as Georgia Tech emphasized defense on the perimeter as opposed to close to the basket.

The Cavaliers managed to establish their advantage even further, with Gardner scoring six consecutive points to stretch the scoreline to 30-13. Albeit rattled from the events of the first half, Coach Josh Pastner’s team outscored the Cavaliers 6-2 in the final two minutes of play to at least gain some momentum coming into the second half. Nothing seemed to go right for the Yellow Jackets until the final moments, as the Cavaliers dominated nearly every aspect of the game en route to a 13-point halftime lead.

A completely different story took root in the beginning of the second half. The Yellow Jackets — who had succeeded in dissecting the Virginia defense in the last minutes of the first half — scored seven straight points to bring the Cavalier lead to six. Gardner — the most consistent player for Virginia throughout — made a key layup plus a free throw to stop the bleeding and give the Cavaliers a bit of a security blanket. Even after Virginia scored two consecutive baskets to extend the lead to 40-29, Georgia Tech would not go quietly, narrowing its deficit to as few as six again with 10:50 to go. 

Despite a huge three-pointer from senior guard Kihei Clark to push the lead back out to seven, Georgia Tech mounted a quick five-point run to bring the score to 49-47, the closest the score had been since the very beginning of the first half. 

Gardner responded with two huge buckets of his own, while the composed Clark converted a three-pointer to stretch the lead back to eight. From that point on, the Yellow Jackets would not get a better chance for the rest of the game despite several strong attempts by the visitors. Thanks to the strong play of Clark and Gardner down the stretch, Virginia triumphed in another must-win game at home. 

Coach Tony Bennett was particularly complimentary of his senior guard in his postgame press conference.

“To answer your question about Kihei, you need a play to be made, making a shot, making a defensive play, whatever it is, all that stuff was on display,” Bennett said “A lot of experience for that young man and I'm glad that he's here.”

Holding a 16-2 mark against Georgia Tech under Coach Bennett, the Cavaliers still had to fight to avoid a “trap game” that many worried about after the Duke win. Virginia showed some signs of offensive prowess despite the lack of three-point shooting, with Gardner once again serving as the team’s most consistent scorer in the frontcourt. 

Clark remained a steady presence and navigated Georgia Tech’s zone with confidence and composure. The only knock on this Cavalier team is the consistent failure to shoot well from behind the arc, as a four-for-18 clip will not bode well for later games in the ACC slate. Overall, however, this was a much needed victory for the Cavaliers to keep pace with the top of the conference.

Virginia will travel to Blacksburg Monday to take on their in-state rival, the Virginia Tech Hokies (15-10, 7-7 ACC). Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN.

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