By Jeff White (email@example.com)
ATLANTA — The crowd of 6,380 at McCamish Pavilion included a healthy turnout of University of Virginia fans, and their cheers were audible throughout the proceedings Saturday night. Make no mistake, though, this was no home game for the Cavaliers, and that made their victory that much more satisfying.
“We worked hard for this,” senior guard Reece Beekman said after UVA rallied for a 75-66 win over Georgia Tech. “There’s been a lot of games that we just kind of fell apart on the road.”
Not this one. Against an ACC opponent that defeated Duke last month and was coming off a double-overtime win at Clemson, UVA took control with a 17-0 run that spanned both halves. Mired in a scoring drought that lasted more than four-and-a-half minutes, the Wahoos saw their lead cut to five late in the game, but forward Jake Groves and guard Isaac McKneely each made a 3-pointer in the final 82 seconds to ward off the Yellow Jackets (9-9, 2-5).
This was the fifth road game of the season for the Hoos (13-5, 4-3), who had lost each of the previous four by at least 16 points.
“It was definitely big,” said McKneely, a 6-foot-4 sophomore. “We’ve been striving to get one on the road. It’s a lot easier to win at home, especially when you get the crowd behind you, but we had to bring our own energy tonight.”
Head coach Tony Bennett saw signs of progress from his team at Wake Forest last weekend, at least in the first half, and the Hoos returned home to collect an important win Wednesday night over Virginia Tech.
“Then the next challenge is: Can you do it on the road?” Bennett said. “And so to be able to finish a game, play well in a second half, and withstand and show some consistency, making some shots, getting some stops and handling some real game pressure, was important, but it’s just another step.”
The game started inauspiciously for the Cavaliers, who found themselves trailing 24-13 at the nine-minute mark of the first half. The Jackets were shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and 53.3 percent from the floor overall, and another ugly road loss appeared to be a distinct possibility for the Hoos. But their shots started falling, and they offered more resistance when Tech had the ball.
“We just tightened up on defense,” UVA forward Ryan Dunn said.
Dunn, a 6-foot-8 junior, led the way at that end of the court. He blocked a game-high three shots and led all rebounders with 10. (He also contributed nine points and two assists.)
“I feel like he played an exceptional game today,” Beekman said. “His defensive presence, you don’t get that much anywhere else.”
Dunn said: “That’s kind of what my calling card is right now for the team. I’m just accepting my role and doing my role.”
In its visit to Atlanta last season, Virginia scored 25 straight points—the last nine of the first half and the first 16 of the second—en route to a 74-56 victory. The Hoos’ run Saturday night wasn’t quite as monumental, but it was memorable nonetheless.
It started with a driving layup by Beekman that cut Georgia Tech’s lead to 29-23 with 3:28 left in the half. McKneely followed with a 3-pointer. Another McKneely trey tied the game at 29-29, and then Dunn scored inside to give the Cavaliers their first lead. On the final play of the half, the Jackets threw away an inbounds pass, and UVA junior Taine Murray collected the ball and dribbled in for a left-handed layup that made it 33-29 at the break.
The Hoos kept coming after halftime, and by the 16:42 mark they led 44-32.
“I thought once we settled in, we moved harder offensively, had a bit more patience to work [the Jackets’ defense] a little bit to get the shots we wanted,” Bennett said. “And then defensively we cleaned up some of our coverages and just challenged some guys to guard individually, because early they were just getting by us and scoring off some [isolation] plays, and that can’t happen.”
Nearly eight minutes passed before McKneely even took a shot Saturday night, and he missed his first three attempts. Once he broke though, though, he tormented the Jackets, who are in their first season under head coach Damon Stoudamire.
McKneely finished 6 of 9 from behind the arc and had a game-high 20 points. For the season he’s shooting 48.9 percent from 3-point range.
“Once that first one goes down, it kind of sparks you for the rest of the game,” McKneely said. “But they were really pressuring me at first, bumping me off screens and everything. That’s what a lot of teams are starting to do, but I’ve just got to be able to handle that physicality and everything else … My bigs were screening for me and getting me open, and I’m thankful for that.”
Beekman did a little bit of everything for the Hoos, as is often the case for the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year. His final stat line: 19 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and two steals.
The Cavaliers, who have won 11 straight games over the Yellow Jackets, have strong ties to Atlanta. Former UVA players from the area include Malcolm Brogdon, Isaiah Wilkins and Evan Nolte, and another program alum, De’Andre Hunter, plays for the NBA’s Hawks.
Hunter stopped by Virginia’s shootaround at McCamish Pavilion on Saturday afternoon. Nolte was in the stands that night and witnessed a victory that was reminiscent of countless other road wins during Bennett’s tenure at Virginia.
“And now we’ve got to keep stacking them,” Dunn said.
Jordan Minor, in his third straight start at center for the Cavaliers, turned in another solid effort, totaling 11 points and putting his 6-foot-8, 242-pound frame to good use against the Jackets’ talented big men.
“His physicality is noticeable,” Bennett said of Minor, a graduate transfer from Merrimack.
McKneely has rarely been more timely with his shot-making. With 8:21 to play and the shot clock about to expire, he hit a shot from a spot on the court that would have been well beyond the NBA’s 3-point line.
He’s been working with assistant coach Johnny Carpenter “on extending my range each day,” McKneely said, “trying to move back a little bit more, trying to get to the logo and stuff, because teams are really pressuring me and they’re not letting me [get open looks]. We worked on it at shootaround today. That’s just what we do.”
Bennett said: “He bailed us out. We had a bad possession. They went zone and we were kind of not organized, and then it just rolled out to him.”
With 5:56 left, Minor’s left-handed jump hook gave UVA what appeared to be a commanding 14-point lead. But the Hoos missed their next five shots, and Georgia Tech ran off nine straight points to make it 67-62 with 1:39 remaining.
At that juncture, Groves had only two points, and he’d passed up shots his coaches and teammates wanted him to take. But when Beekman passed him to him on the right wing, the 6-foot-9 graduate transfer from Oklahoma didn’t hesitate, and his trey made it 70-62 with 82 seconds left.
“Huge,” Bennett said.
“I was like, ‘Thank you!’ ” McKneely said, smiling. “That was a huge shot for Jake, for sure.”
The Cavalier fans in attendance thought so too. “You could hear their excitement,” Dunn said, “and it was really good for us.”
McKneely added an exclamation point in the final minute, catching a pass from Beekman and burying a 3-pointer that sealed the win for the Hoos.
His team is progressing, Bennett said, but must continue to perseverance in its pursuit of quality and consistency.
“You can get weary when you’re getting kicked around on the road or you’re not playing quality basketball in practice,“ Bennett said, “but as a staff and as the young men, we’ve tried to work, keep joy in the practices and handle the losses with perspective and handle the wins with perspective and then just don’t grow weary. Just keep putting another good practice and performance together.”
UVA and Georgia Tech will meet again March 9 at JPJ, in the regular-season finale for both teams.
UP NEXT: In a game to air on ACC Network, UVA hosts NC State (13-5, 5-2) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers are 10-0 at JPJ this season and have won 20 consecutive games at home.
This will be the second game between these teams in less than three weeks. The Wolfpack defeated the Hoos 76-60 at PNC Arena on Jan. 6.
NC State lost at home to Virginia Tech on Saturday afternoon.
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