By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — If Reece Beekman had opted to stay in the NBA draft pool last spring, who knows where the University of Virginia men’s basketball team would stand today?
Fortunately for the Wahoos, that’s only fodder for speculation. Beekman, of course, chose to return to the University for his fourth year, a decision that carried significant implications for the Hoos’ 2023-24 season.
“It’s huge for us,” associate head coach Jason Williford said in early June, and truer words were never spoken.
Through 10 games, the 6-foot-3 Beekman leads the 22nd-ranked Cavaliers (9-1) in points, assists and steals, and he’s third on the team in blocked shots and rebounds. He contributed big plays late in close wins over Florida and West Virginia last month, and Beekman turned in another gem Saturday night at John Paul Jones Arena, where UVA rallied to edge Northeastern 56-54.
“We absolutely don’t win that game without him,” Virginia forward Jake Groves said.
Beekman, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, scored a career-high 21 points, grabbed a team-high six rebounds, and also had five assists and two steals. He turned the ball over only once.
Late in the game, he slipped a pass to sophomore Ryan Dunn for a dunk that put the Cavaliers up 52-50. The Huskies (4-7) responded with four straight points, but Beekman coolly made two free throws with 52.7 seconds left to tie the game at 54-54.
After a defensive stop by the Hoos, the ball went to Beekman, who drove and banked in a contested shot from the right side with 5.1 seconds left. Northeastern called a timeout to set up a final shot, only to throw away the inbounds pass, and so Beekman’s shot proved to be the game-winner.
“Reece is a tremendous player, and I thought he pretty much willed them to victory,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said. “The [other Cavaliers] were kind of a little bit neutral and he just made some things happen off the bounce—not only with his ability to score, but his ability to find his teammates.”
UVA head coach Tony Bennett, alluding to a recent controversy involving the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, joked with Beekman after the game.
“I said I should have sprinted and gotten the game ball for him and given it to him,” Bennett, smiling, told reporters at his postgame press conference. “I don’t know where it went. But Reece didn’t seem too concerned about that.”
On a night when several of his teammates weren’t at their best, Beekman knew he had to assert himself offensively.
“I had to do that kind of throughout the whole game,” he said, “but especially down the stretch. Being a point guard and leader, you’ve got to step up in those situations, and the team counts on me in those situations. So I just stepped up and made the plays we needed to win.”
Virginia, which trailed by six at the break, promptly found itself down 13 early in the second half. Beekman ended the Huskies’ 7-0 run with a free throw at the 17:40 mark, and the Hoos slowly and steadily reduced their deficit.
UVA missed its first eight shots from 3-point range before finally breaking through. With 9:34 left, sophomore guard Isaac McKneely’s trey cut Northeastern’s lead to 42-40. McKneely’s second 3-pointer put the Hoos up 45-44 and then Beekman lobbed a pass to Dunn for an emphatic slam that made it 47-44 with 5:41 left. Many opponents would have wilted at JPJ, but Huskies rallied again and led 50-48 with 3:25 to play.
“They had that game,” Bennett said. “We had it for a stretch. That’s just one of those kind of smash-mouth games that [came down to the] last man standing, and plays had to be made.”
Groves, a transfer from Oklahoma, tied the game at 50-50 with a long jump shot. He finished with eight points, as did McKneely, whom the Huskies hounded into 3-for-12 shooting. Off the bench, redshirt freshman swingman Leon Bond III and freshman guard Elijah Gertrude combined for 11 points.
Northeastern’s perimeter defense created opportunities for the Hoos in the paint, and No. 2 took full advantage. Time and again, Groves said, he’d set a ball screen for Beekman “and let him cook, which was working … Obviously, he was the guy that was making things happen for us tonight. So it was our job to get him open, to put him in position to do what he does best. And that’s exactly what happened. He was really big-time down the stretch, especially with that last shot he made.”
The Hoos were “unsound defensively for stretches of the first half and then a little bit in the second half,” Bennett said. “But that was our only chance—to toughen up—and then someone needed to make some plays.”
Beekman was usually the one doing so Saturday night.
“He’s a really hard kid to keep out of the lane,” Coen said. “He’s got tremendous quickness and explosiveness and ball-handling ability. And he’s got the ability to make tough midrange shots over length. He made a bunch of those today.”
In his first three seasons at UVA, Beekman shared ballhandling duties with Kihei Clark and was known more for his defense than his offense. But he’s hit several game-winners during his career, including a last-second 3-pointer against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in February 2022, and he’s expanded his offensive repertoire this season.
He’s still inconsistent from the perimeter—Beekman is 7 for 27 from long range this season—but he’s made 41 of 78 attempts (52.6 percent) from inside the arc.
“I think he’s really, really good at, once he gets an angle on a guy, just keeping that angle and then using his body to kind of bump and hang in the air and then finish,” Groves said. “It’s something that I see a lot in practice and it’s cool to see it translate to the game, him having his way with the defense and just having the ability to make those one-on-one plays.”
Final exams ended Friday at the University, and the game was the Cavaliers’ first since Dec. 5. In its previous games against non-Power Five opponents—Tarleton State, North Carolina A&T, Texas Southern and North Carolina Central—Virginia wasn’t seriously tested. Saturday night was different.
“This was hard,” Bennett said. “Every possession mattered defensively and offensively. There was legitimate game pressure. Guys had to step up. When a mistake was made. you felt it. You knew [the Huskies] were a play away from opening the thing up. And so I just think there’s incredible value in that and we haven’t had a game like that [in a while].”
Groves said: “I think we’ve got a locker room full of very grateful guys that we got [the win].”
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers have two non-conference games left. The first is Tuesday night, when Virginia plays at Memphis in a much-anticipated matchup that will air on ESPN2 at 7 o’clock Eastern. The Tigers improved to 8-2 with a 79-77 victory over No. 13 Clemson on Saturday at FedExForum in Memphis.
“Great opportunity,” Beekman said. “Kind of different styles. We’re going up against their fast pace … so it’s just gonna be a battle.”
This will be only the second meeting between these programs. In March 2014, UVA defeated Memphis 78-60 in Raleigh, N.C., in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32.
Former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway is in his sixth season as head coach at Memphis, his alma mater.
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