By HANK KURZ Jr.
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Defense has often been the phase of Virginia’s game cited when the Cavaliers struggle, especially on the road.
The Cavaliers may have taught themselves a lesson Wednesday night, riding the spark of solid defensive play and their most balanced game of the season to beat Florida State 85-72 and improve to 9-0 at home.
As they did in beating No. 17 Wake Forest on Saturday, the Cavaliers used a run bridging the halves to take command. They outscored the Seminoles 12-3 to end the half, then came out on a 10-4 run in the second.
“We wanted to really focus on defense to open up the half,” said Todd Billet, whose 14 points included a 3-pointer that sparked the second-half spurt. “When you focus on defense, it gets you playing hard.”
Travis Watson had 20 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Cavaliers (12-6, 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), and five players scored in double figures. Derrick Byars added 15, Elton Brown 14 and Jason Clark 12.
Coach Pete Gillen, whose team came into the game allowing opponents to score an ACC-high 73.2 points, said defense was the key, along with the Cavaliers’ ability to sustain its momentum through the intermission.
“A lot of times we get a lead and we’re just not mature enough … to hang onto it,” he said. “At least this time, I don’t think they cut it too deep. I think defense was the story tonight.”
Florida State (10-8, 1-6) dropped its 12th in a row on the road in the ACC. The Seminoles, whose last league road win came March 3, 2001, at Clemson, lost for the fourth time in five meetings with Virginia.
“It seemed as though every time we attempted to get back in the game, they hit a big shot,” Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton said. “They moved the ball well and got some open looks and their shooters hit the shots.”
Virginia hit 11 of 20 3-point shots, getting four 3s apiece from Billet and Byars and one each from three other players.
For Watson, who made just 5 of 14 shots, it was a game where will overcame rustiness, Gillen said, noting that Watson missed practice Monday while attending to academic matters and struggled with his timing.
“If he could ever get his timing down, I’d hate to see what he could do,” Gillen said.
The Cavaliers led 38-28 after closing the first half on a 12-3 run, then outscored the Seminoles 10-4 in the first 3:05 of the second half. They maintained a lead of at least nine points the rest of the way, and pushed it as high as 18 on Majestic Mapp’s 3-pointer with 5:27 left.
Tim Pickett led the Seminoles with 21 points and hit six 3-pointers, but he scored all but three of his points in the second half. Anthony Richardson added 17 points and Todd Galloway had 12 and eight assists.
The victory was seen as crucial for the Cavaliers, who have lost five of six road games and travel to Georgia Tech and No. 10 Maryland for their next two games. They return home Feb. 9 to play North Carolina State.
Billet thinks they are more prepared now than they were a few weeks ago, when they lost at Duke, at Clemson and got swamped at Virginia Tech.
“I think guys are becoming more comfortable with each other, and it’s starting to come together,” he said. “We’re starting to use our depth.”
The Cavaliers took control at the end of the half and, just as they had in beating No. 17 Wake Forest on Saturday, kept it going when the teams returned for the second half.
Billet’s third 3-pointer began a 10-4 run that included a stickback and a 16-footer by Brown and a 3-pointer by Devin Smith that made it 48-32 with 16:55 left.
The Seminoles got no closer than 51-41 with 14:50 to play. Byars followed with a 3-pointer, his fourth, and Watson added a free throw.