By Jeff White (

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For years, visiting men’s basketball teams encountered a famously hostile atmosphere inside the massive KFC Yum! Center, and perhaps that will be the case again one day.

For now, though, dispirited Louisville fans struggle to muster much animosity, and Virginia made sure they had little to cheer Saturday afternoon.

Before a crowd of 11,381 in the 22,090-seat arena, UVA scored the game’s first 11 points and led by 28 at the half. The Wahoos’ concentration lapsed at times in the second half, but they were never threatened en route to a 69-52 victory.

For Virginia (15-5 overall, 6-3 ACC), the victory was its ninth straight in the series. Tony Bennett improved his record against Louisville as the Hoos’ head coach to 19-2.

“They came out and handled us pretty much all over the court,” said Kenny Payne, Louisville’s embattled second-year head coach.

When these teams met Jan. 3 at John Paul Jones Arena, the Cavaliers cruised to a 77-53 victory. The rematch was similarly one-sided for the first 20 minutes, when UVA shot 57.1 percent from the floor and allowed a season-low 13 points.

“We were sharp defensively,” Bennett said, “and then offensively we were really just kind of moving well and finding the open looks. So it was complementary basketball, it really was. It’s not always like that, but, boy, it really got clicking, and that made a difference.”

Before the game, a red-clad fan sitting behind one of the baskets shouted, “Come on, Cardinals! Let’s have some heart today!” His plea did not have the desired effect as Louisville fell to 6-14 overall and 1-8 in ACC play.

The Cards came in with five players averaging at least 10.1 points per game. Only one Louisville player reached double figures Saturday: guard Tre White, who scored 10 points. Led by senior guard Reece Beekman, the Hoos came up with 14 steals.

His five steals were a season high for Beekman, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and he also had a game-high nine assists. Three of those passes resulted in dunks by Ryan Dunn, who had six slams overall.

“Most of the time he’s in the right place at the right time,” Beekman said of the high-flying Dunn, a 6-foot-8 sophomore. “But I could throw the ball almost anywhere and there’s gonna be a connection for him to go get it. We’ve built that over the year. It kind of started last year with a couple of plays, but this year, during the summer, we really grew that connection where I’m just finding him in his right spots.”

His chemistry with Beekman, who’s averaging 6.2 assists per game, is “amazing,” Dunn said. “He knows where I’m going to be at. All I’ve got to tell him is to throw it up, and he puts it where I can go get it.”

Reece Beekman

Dunn finished with a career-high 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the floor. With a game-high 11 rebounds, he posted his second straight and fifth career double-double.

For the season, Dunn is third on the team in scoring (10.2 ppg). He leads the Cavaliers in rebounds (7.3 per game) and blocked shots (2.3 per game) and he’s second in steals (1.7 per game) behind Beekman (2.4 per game). Dunn is shooting 58.7 percent from the floor.

“That guy does probably two, three, four things every game that just amaze me,” UVA forward Jake Groves said. “He might be my favorite player in college basketball right now, I think, and I just love watching him play. He’s such a good guy, and I just root for him.”

The Cavaliers have won four straight games, and Dunn has shot 73 percent from the floor during that stretch, with only two 3-point attempts. For the season, he’s shooting 24 percent from beyond the arc.

“I’m finding my role and being confident in it,” Dunn said. “I like to shoot 3s. I know that’s kind of what I’m struggling in, but I’m just gonna keep working on that. But I know I can shoot mid-ranges too. So I’m just getting those shots … and just finishing up at the rim is my biggest thing right now.”

Dunn is known for his defensive prowess, but his recent strides at the other end have been noticeable. “He’s slashing, he’s on the glass, he’s getting people open and playing a little more opportunistically offensively,” Bennett said. “and I think it’s tightened his game up. The game always provides opportunities for you to make plays here and there. He had a couple mismatch post-ups [Saturday] where we got him the ball. So I think that’s been a key for us and for him that he is really staying within himself in the right way. He’s really been efficient and effective, and I think it’s helping his game and, of course, helping us.”

Coming off a game in which he blocked a career-high six shots, Dunn had a mere two rejections against Louisville.

“I slipped a little bit,” he said, shaking his head. “I was looking more offensively to score today, but I’ll get it back.”

Dunn was the only Cavalier to score in double figures, but three of his teammates—Beekman, Groves and sophomore guard Isaac McKneely—finished with nine points apiece. In 12 minutes off the bench, Groves was 3 for 4 from long range. He made his first trey 21 seconds after checking into the game for the first time.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s also something that I’ve gotten used to in my career,” said Groves, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma who also has played at Eastern Washington. “I’ve started plenty of games, but I’ve also come off the bench and had to contribute in plenty of games, and so it’s nothing new to me. I’m happy to be on the floor and getting the opportunity to shoot the ball obviously is good as well.”

Tony Bennett (right)

The Cards outscored the Cavaliers 39-28 in the second half, and that displeased the visitors. During one stretch Virginia gave up 11 unanswered points.

“It’s a noon game, there’s not a ton of energy in the building,” Groves said, “and it’s tough to keep it rolling when you’re bringing all that energy yourself. It’s also a good experience for us to get some guys in who don’t play as much: really reach down into the bench and get those guys some experience. And so I think all those things mixed together resulted in them maybe making little runs to come back.”

Still, Dunn said, the Hoos “can’t have those [letdowns] any more. We’re getting to February now and we’re playing for something, like TB always says, so we gotta keep having those days where, if we have a great first half like that, we sustain it throughout the whole game.”

His team’s “start was great,” Bennett said, “but our second half was not a sharp second half. That was kind of a bit of a downer. Too many unsound plays in the second half: how many points we gave up, how many nonchalant turnovers, and we got in foul trouble because they’re an aggressive team. They put a lot of people in foul trouble the way they drive, but we just showed, I think, our immaturity and our inexperience and that’s not good enough.”

Tougher tests lie ahead for the Cavaliers, Beekman said, “so we’ve just got to continue to work on that throughout the season, because we’re gonna be in closer games than that, and we need to come out the second half much better.”

UP NEXT: In a game to air on ESPN2, Virginia will host Notre Dame (7-13, 2-7) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Cavaliers, who are 11-0 at John Paul Jones Arena this season, will be out to avenge a perplexing loss in South Bend, Ind.

Notre Dame scored the game’s first 13 points and whipped UVA 76-54 at Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 30. Not since February 2017 had the Hoos lost to an ACC opponent by so many points.

The Fighting Irish, whose first-year associate head coach is former UVA assistant Kyle Getter, lost at home to Boston College on Saturday afternoon.

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