By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Before the teams were introduced Tuesday night, the 14,000-plus inside John Paul Jones Arena observed a moment of silence in memory of the late Terry Holland, a legendary figure in the history of University of Virginia athletics.
When the game started, his beloved Virginia Cavaliers turned in a defensive performance that would have delighted Holland, who in the 1980s led the program to two Final Fours.
UVA’s opponent, Clemson, had scored 91 or more points in three of its previous four games. The Tigers encountered significantly more resistance from the 13th-ranked Wahoos, who ended a two-game losing streak with a 64-57 victory. The win clinched a double bye and a top-four seed for the Hoos (22-6, 14-5) in next week’s ACC tournament.
“At this time of the year, you’ll never be successful if you don’t sit down and guard and make people earn,” said UVA head coach Tony Bennett, who talked to his team before practice Monday about Holland’s legacy. “We needed that. Again, your offense can come and go, but the defense always has to be there.”
In perhaps their worst performance of the season, the Cavaliers lost 63-48 at Boston College on Feb. 22. Three nights later, Virginia stumbled again, this time at North Carolina. But the Hoos, after a subpar first half, played the final 20 minutes in Chapel Hill with intensity and passion, and Bennett praised his players’ resilience.
“I told them after the Carolina game that it was a joy for me to watch how hard they competed,” Bennett said Tuesday night. “I know we got beat against Carolina, but I saw it in their eyes, I saw it in their effort, and we competed as hard as we could in that game, really on both ends, but [especially] defensively in the second half.”
The Cavaliers “carried that into this game,” freshman guard Isaac McKneely said Tuesday night, “and I thought we played really well defensively. [The Tigers have] some really good guys … They’re all really good and tough to guard. The Pack Line defense is meant to be together and I thought we played together on the defensive end tonight, and that’s the reason we came out with the win.”
The Hoos have struggled to score in recent games, and they missed their first eight shots from the floor against Clemson (21-9, 13-6). Reserve forward Ryan Dunn got them on track. The 6-foot-8 freshman blocked a shot by Clemson guard Brevin Galloway, grabbed the rebound and started a fast break.
“Once I got that block, I just started to run,” Dunn said.
He raced past the defense, soared for a lob pass from Reece Beekman and laid it in to make it 5-2 at the 15:12 mark, bringing the crowd to its feet.
“Big,” Bennett said of the play, on which Dunn was fouled. After a TV timeout, Dunn completed the three-point play, and the Cavaliers kept rolling. They went ahead to stay on two free throws by forward Jayden Gardner about seven minutes into the game.
“Our defense got us some offense early,” Bennett said. “We just worked, made them earn. It was far from perfect, but it was what we needed. And then we tried to move hard and work hard offensively and just be true to who we are.”
With 12:35 left in the first half, Bennett inserted fifth-year senior Francisco Caffaro at center. Forty seconds later, sophomore swingman Taine Murray entered the game. Caffaro hadn’t played since Feb. 11, and Murray hadn’t played since Jan. 28, but they’d been practicing well, Bennett said, “and I thought we needed the physicality, we needed the energy and I thought they gave us a nice lift … We had been struggling, and we said, ‘Let’s try and mix it up and see if we can get some life and some energy.’ And you’re never going to doubt how hard Taine will play, and [Caffaro’s] physicality was real and we needed that against [Clemson’s big men].”
Clemson came to JPJ with four players averaging in double figures. UVA held two of them—Galloway and Chase Hunter—to three and seven points, respectively. Center PJ Hall led the Tigers with 19 points (on 9-for-13 shooting). Forward Hunter Tyson added 17 points for Clemson, but he missed 10 of 16 shots from the floor.
“Give credit to Virginia,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “I thought they played very well tonight. I thought both teams played exceptionally hard. They played a little better than we did. They’re very good defensively and they’re hard to get a good rhythm against. I don’t think we got into a good rhythm for a while in the game. We got better the longer the game went. I thought their two freshmen off the bench were very big in the game, and that was a difference. Their bench played better than our bench a little bit.”
Dunn finished with 10 points, five rebounds, one block and one steal in 17-plus minutes. The 6-foot-4 McKneely contributed 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting in 16-plus minutes.
“Our two first-years did a good job for us giving us lifts,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers’ veterans did their part as well. Gardner, a fifth-year senior, totaled 12 points and nine rebounds, and Kihei Clark, a 5-foot-10 guard who as a freshman helped Virginia win the NCAA title in 2019, had six assists and two steals on a night when he didn’t make a shot from the floor.
“I’m glad he’s graduating,” Brownell said after Clark’s penultimate game at JPJ.
Senior guard Armaan Franklin matched Gardner and McKneely with 12 points, and Beekman, a 6-foot-3 guard, finished with eight assists, seven points, four steals, three rebounds and two blocks.
“We weren’t going to score 90 against Clemson,” Bennett said. “They’re playing terrific ball. We just had to do what we could do to the best of our abilities and trust that, and that’s what I thought the guys did.”
Free throws remain an adventure for Virginia, which missed 13 of 22 shots from the line in its Feb. 11 win over Duke at JPJ and missed 6 of 11 at UNC. The Cavaliers made 15 of 22 free throws Tuesday, but five of those misses came in the final five minutes and kept Clemson’s comeback hopes alive.
“We’re saving ‘em,” Bennett said, smiling, when asked about his team’s free-throw shooting.
A Galloway trey cut the Cavaliers’ lead to four with 33.2 seconds left, but Clemson drew no closer. Clark went 3 for 4 from the line, and McKneely hit two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining to seal a victory that improved the Hoos’ record at JPJ this season to 14-1.
“Playing at these other ACC arenas, there’s some good ones for sure,” McKneely said, “but the atmosphere here is just insane … I always say having this home crowd is kind of like a five-point advantage almost. When we’re getting turnovers and getting buckets and the crowd’s really getting into it, it makes [opponents] in shambles a little bit, I’d say so. I really respect the home crowd and hopefully they show on Saturday again, because we’re going to need them.”
SENIOR DAY: In a game to air on ESPN2, Virginia closes the regular season Saturday at 2 p.m. against Louisville (4-26, 2-17) at JPJ.
Recognized in a ceremony before the game will be fiveplayers—Caffaro, Gardner, Franklin, Vander Plas and Chase Coleman—and managers Jackson Selby and Anna Williamson. (Clark was honored during Senior Day last year and won’t take part in the ceremony Saturday.)
Louisville lost 71-54 at home to Virginia Tech late Tuesday night.
This will be the second game between UVA and Louisville in less than three weeks. The Hoos held on for a 61-58 win over the Cardinals in Louisville on Feb. 15.
In Bennett’s 14 seasons at UVA, his record against Louisville is 16-2.
SOUND BITES: The victory was Virginia’s 13th in its past 14 games with Clemson. Bennett’s record against the Tigers is 15-4. Among the postgame comments Tuesday night:
* Bennett: “We did a couple of different things offensively, but nothing too new … I was proud of how hard the guys played. As I said, it was joy to watch them compete, just like it was for me against Carolina with a different result.”
* Bennett on the atmosphere at JPJ this season: “It has been terrific … Our fans have appreciated, I think, how our guys are trying to compete. We’re far from perfect, I know that. But the fans, I think, appreciate good, hard-nosed play and kids not quitting and doing it the right way. And so they’ve given us a great lift, and that’s what you hope for.”
* Dunn on his spectacular finish in transition: “Reece threw it, and I tried to go get it.”
* McKneely on UVA’s offense: “It got off to a little bit of a slow start, but I thought once we got it rolling, our offense was clicking, and hopefully we can carry that into these next few games.”
* McKneely on playing with Clark: “Kihei’s just an absolute mastermind … Playing with Kihei is amazing. It seems like he always just finds me in the right spots.”
* Brownell, whose team routed NC State on Saturday afternoon, on the challenge of facing Virginia: “It’s a quick turnaround Saturday to Tuesday, and there’s so many defensive things [to learn], because Tony’s team is different than most teams offensively. There’s just so much to try to get ready for in a couple of days. It’s hard, and we probably didn’t do enough that way to help our guys.”
* Brownell on Clark: “A lot of us evaluate players from the neck down. He’s unbelievable, neck up. He’s an unbelievable winner … He just makes winning plays on both ends of the floor, and obviously Coach Bennett is tremendous because he had the wherewithal to recruit a guy like that when probably a lot of us wouldn’t.”
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