Tony Bennett scanned the floor in the opening minutes of the Virginia Cavaliers’ blowout win over the Syracuse Orange. The Cavaliers stood a long way from a 20-point lead, and ultimately lost the first half. Before Tyus Battle laid a hand on UVA’s pack-line defense, Bennett decided to take no chances.
Kihei Clark began the game covering Battle, but Bennett switched to De’Andre Hunter. He wanted to ensure that if Battle hit over the pack line, the shots would be difficult and contested. Against potentially the ACC’s best defender, Battle shot 5-for-19 and got blocked three times. Bennett rotated Ty Jerome over to Oshae Brissett, holding him to six points.
Syracuse’s 79-53 loss to No. 2 Virginia may mark Battle’s last game at the Carrier Dome. He didn’t confirm that he played his final game in Syracuse, but afterward reminisced on how quickly three seasons went by. If Monday was his Dome finale, like it was for Frank Howard and Paschal Chukwu, the length and screen-discarding talent of Hunter squashed Battle’s ability to go out with a bang. A 16.5 points per game scorer in his career at home dropped only 11.
“The year he’s having and how good he can create his own shot, we thought we needed length on him,” Bennett said. “We put Kihei on him, we actually did a good job a couple times, but you could see he could just use his strength and go right over the top. We really wanted De’Andre on him as much as possible.”
Hunter dug into Battle less than five minutes into the game as he ran dribble-handoff action, using Oshae Brissett as a screener behind the right elbow. Battle took the ball while Brissett screened Hunter in action similar to what got Battle the game-winner against Georgetown. The Hoyas didn’t have a defender that could bump into Brissett, slide through him, and still reach long enough to tip a step-back shot attempt.
Battle missed his first four shots, using the occasional double team that Virginia tossed at him to hit Chukwu on a lob, then broke off for two jumpers past the 10-minute mark. He didn’t reach the free throw line and with four points, Syracuse built only a two-point lead after a strong half.
“Tyus got his opportunities,” Jim Boeheim said. “He got to the spot where he can make shots, and he just couldn’t get it in. When he doesn’t score for us, that’s an issue. We have trouble scoring when Ty doesn’t score.”
Hunter denied Battle the ball, leading to stretches of entire minutes where Battle didn’t get a shot, and cut off his dribble lanes to the basket. That left Battle settling for jumpers, unable to match the record 18 three-pointers that Virginia poured on Syracuse’s defense at the other end.
Battle broke loose for a three-pointer in the corner that handed Syracuse its last lead of the game. Hunter dug back in, Battle tried to attack him head-on and met nothing but frustration. His spin move off the catch didn’t work, and Hunter proved too strong to muscle into the paint.
“He’s an offensively-talented player,” Hunter said. “So I was just trying to cut off his left hand and make it hard for him.”
Battle pulled out the full arsenal of moves on Hunter. His first step couldn’t pass Hunter’s length and balance. Hunter discarded screens with ease. Battle could never switch him off, even against a switch-heavy pack line defense. The Cavaliers played content utilizing their top defensive resource entirely to shut down the Orange’s top scorer.
Syracuse survived eight- and two-point games against Eastern Washington and Northeastern, but Buffalo held Battle to 11 points in a win over the Orange. Georgia Tech held him to 11 in a win less than one month later. Then Virginia Tech and NC State both limited him to 10 or less in wins.
The Orange’s supporting cast scored enough to overcome his six against Pittsburgh and 11 versus Louisville, but SU is 5-5 when Battle drops 11 or less.
“That happens,” Elijah Hughes said. “He’s not going to be a 20-point scorer every night. He even knows that.”
Battle clapped his hands in frustration after Hunter’s second block, but sat more subdued in the locker room, convinced that he’ll figure it out in the film room.
“The whole team in general made it tough for me,” Battle said. “That’s why they’re the number-one defensive team in the country. They help a lot, hedge my ball screens hard and just make it tough.”
It’s less clear if he’ll bounce back at the Carrier Dome. He reminisced about how quickly three seasons passed, then got asked if that reminiscing means his days in Syracuse are over.
“I don’t know what’s going to go on until the end of the season,” he said. “I’m here this year and I’m enjoying every game.”
It’s more obvious that Hunter — robbed of participating in the NCAA Tournament by an injury last spring — could terrorize Battle again if the two meet in the NBA. Boeheim called Hunter a lottery pick.
Jerome, asked how Virginia slowed Battle, said two words: “De’Andre Hunter.”
“He took the challenge to guard him one-on-one and he was unreal.”