It was the Jay Huff show Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena.
The redshirt junior put on a display of defensive excellence while showing off his dunking prowess in Virginia’s 60-42 win over Columbia.
While Huff starred, the game felt all but out of reach before he even entered the game. The Cavaliers took a 10-0 lead out of the gate, and the Lions never cut the deficit to anything fewer than five points.
Huff entered with UVa leading 10-4, and he quickly made an impact on the game. Huff made a hook shot within 20 seconds of entering the game, and only improved from there, finishing with 13 points, six rebounds and five blocks.
Arguably Huff’s best highlight of a game filled with them came when he took a Kihei Clark alley-oop pass and slammed the dunk home behind his head to give Virginia a 17-7 lead with 9:01 left in the opening half. The play drew oohs and aahs from the crowd.
“You kind of just throw it up, and he goes and gets it,” Clark said. “I don’t know how he finds the rim on some of those dunks.”
Huff added another powerful dunk later in the half off another alley-oop pass from Clark. The two connected well throughout the afternoon. Huff said the duo worked on those plays during the preseason, but the degree of difficulty on some of the plays is tough to simulate in practice.
“I think I get lucky some of the time because I could completely miss the rim,” Huff said.
The dunks were crowd pleasers, as were Huff’s four first-half blocks. A few came with stare downs of the opposition after Huff swatted the shots aside.
Virginia led 31-17 at the halftime break behind decent shooting, excellent defense and Huff.
The second half featured more of the same.
Coach Tony Bennett used a variety of players, including Chase Coleman and Francisco Caffaro. The minutes were the first of Caffaro’s UVa career.
The team’s defense remained dominant regardless of who was on the floor. After allowing 34 points to both Syracuse and James Madison, the Cavaliers held Columbia to 42 points.
“You get worried as a coach when you walk into the game and you see Syracuse has had 34 points and 26% [shooting],” Columbia head coach Jim Engles said. “We ain’t Syracuse.”
Virginia forced 14 turnovers and blocked nine shots.
“They’re extremely physical, and I don’t think until you play them you actually understand that,” Engles said. “It’s very hard to get in the lane against them. We had some actual decent shots at the rim and then Huff was able to take them away.”
The frontcourt also played well for the third consecutive game. Mamadi Diakite, Huff and Braxton Key combined for 35 points, 23 rebounds and five blocks. The trio has taken advantage of a few undersized opponents in the first few games of this season.
Size and effort from the frontcourt helped the Cavaliers secure 14 offensive rebounds in the win.
The backcourt performed a bit better offensively, with Tomas Woldetensae playing well after missing the JMU game with an injury. The Italian finished with just five points, but he added six rebounds and performed well within the offense. Clark added 10 points and five assists.
It was an improved offensive performance from the Cavaliers, who shot 4-of-25 from the 3-point line in each of the first two contests. The one weakness of the team through the opening two performances was outside shooting. That looked slightly improved against Columbia.
Virginia shot 5-of-15 on 3-point shots in the win over the Lions. There’s still need for improvement from beyond the arc, however.
“We used a quote for these young guys and for our team, ‘It takes courage to not get discouraged,’” Bennett said. “So if you’re not playing at what you’re used to, which happens a lot for young guys, old guys, everyone, for coaches, too, it takes courage to not get discouraged.”
Bennett expects the young guys to eventually figure out their shooting woes and start consistently making shots.
Through three games, Virginia’s defense and frontcourt are the team’s strengths. Perimeter shooting still needs work, and the backcourt can use additional experience. Regardless, the Cavaliers are 3-0 heading into Tuesday’s game with a talented Vermont team.
It’s been a successful start to the season for a team coming off the first national championship in program history.