No. 19 Virginia resumes its quest for a third straight Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title against rival Virginia Tech on Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville, Va.
Picked to place fourth in the league’s preseason poll, the Cavaliers (10-2, 2-0 ACC) opened the conference campaign with wins over Syracuse on the road and North Carolina at home. They swept the rival Hokies (10-3, 1-1) last season en route to winning the national championship.
Senior forward Mamadi Diakite (13.8 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) is the Cavaliers’ leading scorer, sophomore point guard Kihei Clark (5.9 assists per game) runs the show and senior wing Braxton Key (7.0 rpg) is their best rebounder.
But Key may also hold the key to unlocking Virginia’s stagnant offense: The Cavaliers are 26-1 over the last two seasons (7-0 this season) when Key attempts at least five shots from the field.
“I try to do whatever the team needs to win. If I have to score, I’ll do that,” Key said after scoring a team-high 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting and adding seven rebounds and three steals in Virginia’s 65-56 defeat of Navy on Sunday.
The 6-foot-8 Key is shooting 50 percent from the field and 63.6 percent inside the arc, significantly higher than the team averages of 40.9 and 49.2 percent. He has scored in double figures four times, all wins.
Key has been playing with a cast protecting his left wrist. He missed two games and played sparingly in a third following surgery in late November. He certainly looked healthy when he leaped high and slammed home a one-handed put-back dunk against the Midshipmen.
“He’s steadily gotten more time and played better, and we needed it,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I just keep challenging him to be as great as he can defensively, all over the glass, and then keep finding ways to be effective offensively.”
Key scored a combined 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting in two wins against Virginia Tech last season. Before transferring to UVA, he started for the Alabama team that eliminated the Hokies in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Virginia Tech wasn’t expected to be a tournament candidate this year, picked to finish 14th in the 15-team league in the preseason poll after losing four starters, in addition to coach Buzz Williams to Texas A&M.
But first-year coach Mike Young’s inexperienced squad opened some eyes with an upset of then-No. 3 Michigan State at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 25.
Freshmen accounted for 79 of the Hokies’ points in a 92-37 romp Sunday against Maryland-Eastern Shore. Virginia Tech canned 12 3-pointers — its eighth game with at least 10 treys this season — and committed only two turnovers, tying a school record.
The Hokies’ long-range shooting could be the decider Saturday. They have made 140 3-pointers at a 39.4 percent clip, while the Cavaliers have only allowed 78 treys on 27.6 percent shooting.
Tech brings a four-game winning streak to John Paul Jones Arena, beating Chattanooga, Gardner-Webb, VMI and Maryland-Eastern Shore after enduring a three-game slide.
“This has not been murderer’s row, but we have played some good programs,” Young said. “I feel pretty good. We’ve got 18 bloodbaths, if you will, in league play, and it starts down there on Saturday in Charlottesville.”
–Field Level Media