U.Va. hits overdrive in second half to open season with rout of Towson

Combine Tuesday’s first-half defense with the second-half offense, and Virginia might be onto something.

The fifth-ranked Cavaliers opened their season as expected with a 73-42 rout of visiting Towson. But 10th-year coach Tony Bennett has plenty to critique.

Virginia’s offense was listless during the opening half, its defense soft to start the second. Conversely, the first-half D and second-half O were pretty darn good, suspect competition notwithstanding.

“This is a mobile team, with some size,” Bennett said, “and I haven’t had that, and I think that’s a strength of ours.”

Bennett used the Cavaliers’ mobility more than their size. Indeed, his most effective lineup included starters Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Braxton Key paired with freshman reserve Kihei Clark.

The 5-foot-9 Clark essentially replaced 6-10 starter Jack Salt on the floor, and allowed Jerome to play more off the ball than he did for last season’s ACC regular-season and tournament champions.

Jerome scored a game-high 20 points and made 6-of-9 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. He helped break open the contest early in the second half with an assist to a cutting Mamadi Diakite, a steal and pull-up 3-pointer in transition.

Hunter produced the second double-double of his collegiate career with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Get used to that from the 6-foot-7 sophomore wing who projects as a first-round NBA draft choice whenever he elects to turn pro.

But enough about the Cavaliers’ veterans. It’s the newcomers we’re curious about, right?

A transfer from Alabama, Key grabbed nine rebounds in 29 minutes and displayed the defensive versatility that his teammates and coaches have touted. He began the game checking 240-pound Towson forward Nakye Sanders and later drew a charge from point guard Tobias Howard.

But the most electric rookie was Clark. As Bennett suggested, Clark is a pest defensively, much like former Cavalier Jontel Evans. At 155 pounds, Clark isn’t nearly as strong as the bruising Evans, who doubled as a football running back at Hampton’s Bethel High, but he’s certainly as quick.

“I like the versatility of this team,” Bennett said, “when you can play mobile forwards, play Ty on and off the ball. Kihei gave us a nice lift, and it got Ty going as well. …

“He energizes us, Kihei, just with his tenacity on the ball, poking the ball and making a play. The more ballhandlers you can have on the floor and decision-makers and playmakers the better at times.”

Clark contributed six assists, four points and a steal in 25 minutes, and his on-the-ball defense gives Bennett the option of extending Virginia’s defense beyond its traditional half-court mode. Such full-court pressure bleeds the 30-second shot clock and disrupts offenses even more than usual.

Clark’s steal came in press mode, when he swiped an inbounds pass under the bucket and made a layup.

“That is just an excellent, well-coached machine,” Towson coach Pat Skerry said.

Picked to finish 10th and last in the Colonial Athletic Association, Towson shot 28.6 percent in the first half, 31.7 overall, did not have an assist on its 13 field goals and committed 14 turnovers.

“I thought we had some good stands,” Bennett said. “At times we played decent defense and gave up offensive rebounds.”

Meanwhile, Virginia rebounded from a 37-percent first half to shoot 59.3 percent after intermission. The Cavaliers finished with 19 assists and a meager five turnovers.

“I still think we had some careless turnovers,” Bennett said, “but that’s a good number, 19 and five. We’ll take it.”

On deck for U.Va.: Sunday afternoon’s visit from George Washington. The Colonials were picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Atlantic 10 in a preseason poll of the league’s coaches and select media.

Tuesday marked the second consecutive game in which Virginia was heavily favored against a mid-major program from Baltimore County. Suffice to say, this one suited the Cavaliers far better than last season’s NCAA tournament loss to UMBC.

And what game was on the press-room television during Bennett’s news conference Tuesday? UMBC’s opener at Marquette.

“That’s great,” Bennett said with a smile. “It’s a new year.”

David Teel, 757-247-4636, dteel@dailypress.com, Twitter @DavidTeelatDP.

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