CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Top-ranked Virginia accomplished its first goal of the season. The next ones on the list will only get more difficult.
Ty Jerome scored 18 points and the Cavaliers held off depleted Georgia Tech 65-54 on Wednesday night, clinching at least a share of the regular season title and the top seed next month in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
“It’s definitely a good step in the right direction for what we want to do this year,” Jerome said after the team’s third regular-season title in the past five years. “We just can’t get complacent because we have so much more to go.”
The Cavaliers (25-2, 14-1), who also got nine points each from De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite, were sluggish playing for the first time in eight days. They led just 31-30 at halftime and didn’t open a double-digit lead until just 5:14 remained.
“We kind of had to earn it and outlast them,” coach Tony Bennett said.
Jerome scored 15 of his points in the second half, hitting three of his four 3-pointers after the intermission.
“(He) hit some great shots and some tough shots,” Yellow Jackets coach Josh Pastner said.
Ben Lammers scored 22 points to lead the Yellow Jackets (11-17, 4-11), who lost their sixth in a row and 10th in the last 11 games.
“He told me before the game it’s the best he’s felt since the UCLA game,” Pastner said. The UCLA game was played Nov. 10.
Tadric Jackson added 15 but only three other players scored for the visitors.
Still, Virginia led just 49-45 before Devon Hall hit a pair of free throws and Jerome followed with a 3-pointer, starting an 11-4 b burst that ended on a dunk by Diakite that gave them a 60-49 advantage with 5:15 to play. Their largest lead all night was 12.
The regular-season title, which with be the Cavaliers alone with one more victory in their last three regular-season games, is the eighth in Virginia’s history, but Bennett doesn’t want his team to coast into the tournament.
“Not a whole lot else matters right now except us preparing well, playing to win every time we step foot on the floor and then trying to improve and see what we can learn,” he said.
The ACC Tournament is March 8-10 at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.
Kyle Guy, who got engaged on Sunday, finished with eight points, all in the first nine minutes, for the Cavaliers.
“I think he was 100 percent engaged,” Bennett said of the Cavaliers’ scoring leader. “Locked and loaded.”
BIG MEN ON CAMPUS
Virginia’s big men — center Jack Salt and forwards Isaiah Wilkins and Diakite — combined for 22 points and 13 rebounds. Salt had all six of his in the first six minutes, and Diakite had his nine all in the second half when he gave the Cavaliers a much-needed energy boost.
“I thought he played really well,” Pastner said.
Added Wilkins: “I thought he gave us a big lift on both ends of the floor.”
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets are up against it, having lost their top two freshmen for the rest of the year with injuries, including No. 2 scorer Jose Alvarado (12.1 ppg), but Lammers and Jackson kept them in the game. Sophomore Josh Okogie started the game 50 shy of 1,000 for his career, but missed 7 of 10 shots and scored just seven points. Reinforcements will be appreciated.
Virginia: The Cavaliers were not sharp at either end in their first game in eight days. It could be that their flatness was in part because, after facing the struggling Yellow Jackets, they are to face a team in even worse shape, Pittsburgh.
The Yellow Jackets face another ranked team on the road, playing at No. 15 Clemson on Saturday.
Virginia goes on the road to face Pittsburgh, which entered the night winless in league play.