Virginia center Jack Salt battles for a loose ball against Clemson. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The second-ranked Virginia men’s basketball team overcame a ragged first half to rally for a 61-36 win against No. 18 Clemson on Tuesday night, leaving the Cavaliers as the lone unbeaten school in ACC play.
In permitting its fewest points this season, Virginia claimed an 11th consecutive victory to match the program’s longest winning streak since 2015-16. The Cavaliers beat a ranked opponent for the second time and upended the Tigers for the seventh straight time.
Redshirt senior guard Devon Hall led Virginia (19-1, 8-0 ) with 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting . Backcourt mate Kyle Guy added 12 points in yet another lopsided result for a team that was unranked at the start of the season and next faces No. 4 Duke in Durham, N.C., on Saturday.
“I thought in the second half that was some of the best defense we played,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “They had a couple of careless turnovers on their part, and we turned them into points. It was physical. They kind of punched us in the face a little bit in the first half, and we were a little sped up and stretched out. We then righted the ship and played some of our better defense.”
The game turned handily in Virginia’s favor thanks to an 18-2 barrage in the second half. Starting guard Ty Jerome made two three-pointers in the decisive surge, with his second growing the lead to 48-29 with 8:16 left.
Virginia removed virtually any suspense despite being without Isaiah Wilkins. The senior starting forward left the court for the locker room with roughly 15 minutes to play to have his back examined before emerging to watch the rest of the game from the bench.
Bennett indicated Wilkins could have re-entered had the outcome been in jeopardy.
Wilkins’s teammates made his idle time enjoyable, bumping the lead to 52-29 with 6:48 to play on reserve guard Nigel Johnson’s acrobatic layup between two defenders. On the previous possession, Hall got deep into the lane for a floater over multiple defenders.
The Cavaliers collected 14 steals, their most this season, forced Clemson (16-4, 5-3) into 19 turnovers and held a 25-8 advantage in points off turnovers. The Tigers shot 32 percent, including 3 for 20 (15 percent) from three-point range and went nearly eight minutes in the second half without scoring.
Clemson’s point total was its lowest this season by 24 and the lowest in series history.
“He said it was a real blue-collar game. I’m not going to use the full phrase,” Jerome said, referring to Bennett’s halftime message. “It was a blue-collar game, so we need to roll up our sleeves and just fight it out, be physical, be who we are. A lot of times at this point in the year teams start slipping a little bit in the things they do best, so we wanted to turn the screws back just a little bit.”
In the midst of one of its best seasons this decade, Clemson entered seeking its first road win against a ranked opponent. The Tigers already had secured a victory over then-No. 18 Miami, 72-63, at Littlejohn Coliseum on Jan. 13 on their way to climbing into a tie for third place in the ACC with Duke.
The most recent triumph for Clemson — which achieved its highest ranking since Jan. 18, 2010, when it was No. 17 — came at a significant cost. During the second half of Saturday’s 67-58 win against Notre Dame, Tigers starting forward Donte Grantham tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on a non-contact play.
Grantham is out for the rest of the season, forcing Clemson to play without its second-leading scorer and rebounder.
Freshman Aamir Simms started in place of Grantham against Virginia. The four-star recruit had not played more than eight minutes in a conference game this season until coming in for Grantham after the injury and finishing with five points in 14 minutes against the Fighting Irish.
Simms was not much of a factor early in the first half Tuesday as Virginia scored the first seven points of the game. Clemson responded with 11 in a row, and the Cavaliers regrouped themselves with another seven consecutive points capped by Hall’s three-pointer for a 14-11 lead.
The half of runs continued when Clemson scored the next nine, compelling Bennett to call a timeout.
The stoppage allowed Virginia to settle in again, even without Jerome, who missed much of the half with two fouls. The Cavaliers closed with an 11-0 push for a 27-23 halftime lead behind four points each during that time from Hall and redshirt junior center Jack Salt.
“We lost some momentum there at the end of the first half offensively, and I think we really tried to do too many one-on-one things in the second half, just got away from being who we were,” Tigers Coach Brad Brownell said. The Cavaliers “finally made a couple shots, and when they have a lead like that, you’re really in trouble.”