CLEMSON, S.C. — Virginia coach Tony Bennett thinks that his team has more to improve this season. But he believes his team’s rout of No. 12 Clemson is a strong stride forward in that journey.
“It’s one game,” Bennett cautioned after the 18th-ranked Cavaliers won their 11th straight over the Tigers, 85-50 on Saturday night. “But we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
And those steps could lead the Cavaliers (9-2, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) back to the top of the ACC.
Virginia used accurate shooting and a stingy defense to open a double-digit lead and won by its biggest margin in ACC play since topping Wake Forest 70-34 in February 2015.
There were plenty of questions for the 2019 national champions after a humbling 98-75 loss to No. 1 Gonzaga last month. Ever since, Virginia has played like the regular-season ACC champions it was in 2018 and 2019.
Sam Hauser and Tomas Woldetensae had 14 points and four 3-pointers each to lead the Cavaliers, who are off to their best league start since opening 12-0 in the 2017-18 season.
“I think we’ve grown” since the Gonzaga loss, said Hauser, the Marquette graduate transfer. “We’ve taken some really good strides since that game. It’s been showing.”
That was evident against Clemson (9-2, 3-2 ACC), which entered as the league’s best in fewest points allowed per game. Instead, Virginia took control from the start with their accurate shooting and their own defensive grit.
Virginia, second in the ACC to Clemson in fewest points allowed this season, forced the Tigers to shoot from way outside, something they couldn’t do with success against the Cavaliers. The Tigers finished 5 of 23 (21.7%) from long range.
Aamir Simms hit Clemson’s first field goal less than a minute in, then went ice cold from the field as the Tigers missed their next 13 shots over a 10-minute span while Virginia opened a double-digit lead.
When Tigers freshman PJ Hall finally broke the shooting drought, Virginia was ahead 20-5 and cruising.
Hauser hit 4 of 5 from behind the arc as he hit for double figures for the 10th time in 11 games.
Woldetensae had season highs in points and 3s. Trey Murphy III added 13 points, while Kihei Clark and Jay Huff had 12 points each for Virginia.
“When things are going your way like that, it’s very contagious,” Hauser said.
Hall, Clemson’s 6-foot-10 freshman, led the Tigers with eight points. Clemson gave up a season-high 15 3-pointers.
Virginia had its fun in slicing up Clemson’s defense in the opening half, making 13 of 25 shots the first 20 minutes as it stretched the lead to 24 points.
Clemson hadn’t played since topping North Carolina State 74-70 in overtime on Jan. 5. A few days later, the team paused activities and postponed games at North Carolina and Syracuse due to the novel coronavirus.
The team returned to practice this week to face the Cavaliers.
THE BIG PICTURE
Virginia: The Cavaliers’ only loss in the past nine games was to No. 1 Gonzaga last month. Now, Virginia seems to have found its stride during ACC play, winning four of its five league games by double digits.
Clemson: The Tigers had rallied from behind to win their previous three games against Florida State, Miami and North Carolina State. They put themselves in too big a hole to climb out of against the talented Cavaliers.
At one point, Virginia made nine straight 3-pointers in the second half. Hauser hit three of them while Murphy and Woldetensae had two each. “Our guys knew they had to be right and ready” to compete at Clemson, Virginia’s Bennett said.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell knew his team would have an uphill climb when Virginia was next on the schedule. The Cavaliers’ discipline and execution made them the worst possible matchup for a team coming off an unplanned break. “This break wasn’t good for us,” Brownell said. “This break was bad.”
Virginia returns home to play North Carolina State on Wednesday night.
Clemson plays at Georgia Tech on Wednesday night.