By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Five days after scoring 35 points against nationally ranked Florida Atlantic, Texas A&M guard Wade Taylor IV ran into Virginia’s Pack Line defense at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers held Taylor to nine points Wednesday night in a 59-47 win over the Aggies in the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge.

In its ACC opener, UVA hosted another high-scoring guard Saturday afternoon—Syracuse’s Judah Mintz—and the 6-foot-4 sophomore fared about as well as Taylor had. The Wahoos held Mintz, who came in averaging 20.4 points per game, to five in their 84-62 victory at JPJ.

In each game, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Virginia guard Reece Beekman, drew the toughest assignment. He wouldn’t want it any other way.

“It’s always a great challenge for me,” Beekman, a 6-foot-3 senior, said Saturday, “but as much as it’s my individual defense, it’s also the team as well.”

For the Pack Line to operate as designed, all five defenders must work together, and that was the objective again Saturday.

“Reece is a very good individual defender,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said, “but we talked about it before the game: It’s not Reece or whoever’s matched up on Judah; it’s us versus him, and we have to make it tough.”

Virginia, which is 15-0 all-time in ACC openers under Bennett, improved to 7-1 overall this season.

Asked what makes the Cavaliers’ defense so effective, Syracuse head coach Adrian Autry said, “I think they do a really good job of having 10 eyes on the ball. They always know where the ball is at. They know where it’s being driven. They have a very good understanding of where they need to be on the floor. That’s why they have the No. 1 defense pretty much year in and year out. They just change players, different names, but it’s the same system.”

Mintz finished 2 for 8 from the floor. About six minutes into the second half, he airballed a 3-point attempt, to the delight of the sellout crowd of 14,637, and dropped his head in frustration.

Beekman has trained in the offseason with Mintz and called him “one of the best guards in the league, one of the top creators. So that’s always a challenge that I look forward to, playing against him.”

UVA guard Isaac McKneely can empathize with Taylor and Mintz. McKneely knows how tough it can be to score on Beekman, who has quick feet, long arms and excellent strength and jumping ability.

Even so, the keys for Beekman are “his IQ and his anticipation,” McKneely said. “He’s got the best anticipation I’ve ever seen in my life … He’s gonna be a really good defender, of course, in college, but even at the next level, he’s gonna be a freak defender. Going up against him in practice isn’t fun. I’m not going to lie.”

Syracuse (5-3, 0-1) did not come close to defending at UVA’s level Saturday. Led by McKneely, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, the Wahoos shot 54.5 percent overall from the floor and 57.1 percent from 3-point range.

In little more than 26 minutes, McKneely scored 22 points, seven more than his previous career high. He was 6 for 8 from beyond the arc and 8 for 11 overall. Before Saturday, he’d never made more than four treys in a game as a Cavalier.

“Once you see that first one go down,” McKneely said, “it’s like you get a really good feeling.”

He never cooled off, “so I just kept letting them fly and they were falling,” McKneely said. “So credit to my teammates for finding me when I was open, too.”

As a freshman in 2022-23, McKneely shot 39.2 percent from long range. Through eight games this season, he’s at 54.3 percent. He’s second on the team in scoring (11.6 ppg) behind Beekman (12.0).

“He’s constantly moving, and they look for him,” Autry said of McKneely. “I thought they found him and we lost him a couple of times. One thing I’ll say is he’s definitely extended his range. He made some bombs. I think he made two or three bombs … He’s a tough cover. He got a lot of experience last year and you can see that experience has helped.”

As a freshman, McKneely “deferred more,” Bennett said. “We had older guys and now he’s the second-most experienced player on our team, even though he’s a sophomore, and he knows we need him and that’s usually a progression you want for a guy that.”

Almost from the time No. 11 joined the program, Bennett has urged McKneely to “take the parking brake off” and not hesitate to shoot when he’s in rhythm. McKneely has become increasingly comfortable doing so.

He’s been working “as much as I can to perfect my craft,” McKneely said, “and Coach Bennett and all the coaches really work with me on my shot, just trying to perfect it, the little things like that. The extra shots definitely help and I feel like I’m just shooting it with more confidence this year and hunting my shot more, taking the parking brake off, and when you get in the flow of the game like that and you’re just letting them fly without thinking, it’s a good feeling.”

Isaac McKneely hit a career-high six 3-pointers Saturday

With one notable exception—an Elite Eight game in the 2016 NCAA tournament—Syracuse has had little success against UVA teams coached by Bennett. Perhaps things will change for the Orange under Autry, who took over when Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim retired in March. But Autry’s first encounter with the Cavaliers as head coach was not one he’ll want to remember.

For the first 14 minutes, it was a back-and-forth game, with nine lead changes. Then McKneely hit his third 3-pointer, and momentum flipped in the Hoos’ favor. They closed the half on an 18-6 run and led by 13 at the break. Virginia’s lead grew to 33 points before the Orange put together a late comeback that made the final score look a little less one-sided.

“I thought everything kind of snowballed once we missed a couple of defensive assignments and McKneely got going,” Autry said. “That kind of gave them separation, and it was just hard to get back [in the game].”

Bennett improved his record against Syracuse to 13-3. “Obviously, we shot the ball well,” he said. “You saw the good ball movement and cutting, and so as that was nice to see everyone involved, and then stretches of real good defense.”

The Cavaliers were credited with assists on 21 of their 30 field goals. Beekman had a game-high eight assists, and sophomore swingman Andrew Rohde added four. With 472 career assists, Beekman now ranks eighth on Virginia’s all-time list.

Eight UVA players scored at least six points apiece: McKneely, Beekman (13), Rohde (10), Jake Groves (eight), Taine Murray (seven), Blake Buchanan (six), Elijah Gertrude (six) and Leon Bond III (six). Bond led Virginia with six rebounds.

Virginia forward Ryan Dunn continues to contribute in myriad ways. The 6-foot-8 sophomore scored only four points against Syracuse (on 2-for-4 shooting) but had four points, two assists, two blocked shots and two steals.

Elijah Gertrude

UP NEXT: The Cavaliers will play once more before breaking for final exams. At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Virginia hosts North Carolina Central (4-5) at JPJ.

UVA leads the series 1-0. In the 2022-23 season opener, the Hoos defeated the Eagles 73-61 at JPJ.

After taking on North Carolina Central, Virginia doesn’t play again until Dec. 16, when Northeastern visits JPJ for a 6 p.m. game.

SOUND BITES: The victory was UVA’s sixth straight over Syracuse and 10th in the teams’ past 11 meetings. Among the postgame comments:

* Bennett on how the Cavaliers broke the game open: “Obviously, we started knocking down shots … and it can be a little bit demoralizing when all off sudden the shots just start dropping, and whether [Syracuse defenders] were in our face or they weren’t, we were making deep threes. And then once we stretched it and had a good stretch of defense with it, that’s where the separation occurred.”

* Bennett on Gertrude, a 6-foot-4 freshman who made his second appearance for UVA: “He’s got a big upside. He’s just got to keep developing his shot, developing the defensive ability to stay continuous, and and then use those God-given gifts that he has because he can be electric when he’s up in the air.”

* Autry on his team’s ACC opener: “We knew it was gonna be a challenge. We knew it was gonna be hard. The second half, we didn’t make it much of a game, and they played really well. “

* Beekman on McKneely’s outside shooting: “That’s who we go to when we need a 3. It shows in practice, and he’s hitting shots at a high level. So I feel like we as a team look for him to score that. We need that from him.”

* Beekman on his advice to Gertrude: “I just told him there’s always gonna be highs and lows throughout the season and to never get too high. Never get too low, too, just stay with a level head. But he’s gonna be great.”

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Ryan Dunn