SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Virginia men's basketball team opened its national title defense with a win typical of a Tony Bennett team.
The Cavaliers used clinical defense to stifle Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, pulling out a 48-34 victory over the Orange.
“Sometimes I say, ‘Who are we?’ and you’re still trying to figure that out,” Bennett said, “but I think it will definitely be a defensive team.”
Syracuse struggled in both halves, scoring just 15 points in the second half after only scoring 19 in the first. The Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) bothered Syracuse (0-1, 0-1 ACC) all night, and freshman Casey Morsell helped lock down the Orange’s perimeter scorers. Elijah Hughes led the Orange with 14 points, but it took him 14 shots and five free throw attempts to reach that scoring total.
UVa’s veterans played like experienced stars and sophomore guard Kihei Clark showed why he’s one of the best glue guys in college basketball. The 5-foot-9 guard did it all for Virginia, scoring 10 points to go with 11 rebounds and seven assists.
“What?! 11?!” Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite said when told Clark had finished with 11 boards. “Wow. I’m impressed. I didn’t expect that of the little dude.”
Diakite and Jay Huff dominated the post against a guard-heavy Syracuse team. The duo combined for 23 points and 18 rebounds on 11-of-16 shooting from the field. The Orange didn’t have an answer for the Cavaliers' size inside.
“Jay had really good practices leading up,” Bennett said. “I think Mamadi and his length was significant."
Huff (11 points, 12 rebounds) and Clark both tallied double-doubles for UVa.
The season opener looked like a season opener, though.
Both teams missed open shots, made uncharacteristic mistakes and played decent defense. Neither team found much of a rhythm, which is understandable given their defensive prowess and it being the first game of the season.
UVa struggled to make deep shots, finishing the game just 4-of-25 from beyond the arc. With the way the Cavaliers played defense, it didn’t matter.
The first half started slowly, and it never heated up thanks to solid defense on both ends. Syracuse scored the first bucket of the game before going 9:04 until scoring again. Virginia went on a 13-0 run to take a 13-2 lead halfway through the opening 20 minutes.
After finally getting a shot to fall on a Hughes 3-point shot, Syracuse settled in. The Orange eventually cut the deficit to three on two occasions, but Virginia took a 25-19 lead into the halftime break.
Despite playing elite defense and holding Syracuse to 26.9% shooting from beyond the arc, Virginia uncharacteristically turned the ball over 10 times in the first half. It was sloppy offensive play from the Cavaliers, who struggled completing passes against the active 2-3 Syracuse zone.
Virginia started the second half strong, holding Syracuse to just two points in the first five minutes of the half. The Cavaliers opened up a double-digit lead and held a 37-27 advantage with 9:35 remaining despite poor 3-point shooting.
Two quick buckets later and Virginia led 42-27. Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim called a timeout, and the Carrier Dome fell silent.
The Dome remained mostly silent aside from occasional groans when the Orange threw bricks at the rim. Groups of fans started heading for the exits with five minutes left in the game.
Virginia sent a message to the ACC.
While the Cavaliers lost three phenomenal scorers and an essential piece in Jack Salt, they return an elite defensive team with tremendous length and quickness.
It’s not the same team as last season, but the Cavaliers can play defense as well as any squad in the country.
Given its size, this Cavaliers team can also rebound as well as any in the nation. Virginia outrebounded Syracuse 47-28. This team’s identity won’t mirror last year’s squad, but the Cavaliers remain a dangerous ACC team.
Virginia’s schedule gets easier moving forward, with unranked nonconference foes coming to Charlottesville for the next three games. James Madison comes to Charlottesville for the home opener Sunday.