— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) February 1, 2024
Cavaliers Take Another Step Forward
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Some team members follow NCAA tournament bracketology more closely than others, but all of the Virginia Cavaliers understand that they put themselves in a precarious position with their losses early in the ACC schedule.
No game highlighted UVA’s struggles more than its Dec. 30 date with Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish scored the game’s first 13 points and never trailed in a 76-54 romp at Purcell Pavilion.
“We almost were a step behind in every way, shape and form,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett recalled.
Two other one-sided road losses followed—Jan. 6 at NC State and Jan. 13 at Wake Forest—before the Wahoos defeated Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Jan. 20. That was the Hoos’ second straight victory overall, and they extended their streak to five Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We just kept chipping away, simplifying some things on both ends, and really demanding more, quite honestly,” Bennett said after his team defeated Notre Dame 65-53, “but also being more patient, if that makes sense … We’re just digging in and trying to figure it out.”
Virginia (16-5 overall, 7-3 ACC) led by 15 at the half. Notre Dame (7-14, 2-8) twice cut its deficit to eight in the second half, but each time the Cavaliers pushed back. They’ve climbed to third place in the ACC standings.
“They’re starting to hit their stride, and it was a tough task for us coming in here,” said Micah Shrewsberry, who’s in his first season as Notre Dame’s head coach.
The Irish fell to 0-9 all-time in Charlottesville. The Hoos are 12-0 at home this season and have won 22 consecutive games at JPJ.
Notre Dame shot 46.5 percent from the floor Wednesday night—50 percent from 3-point range—but turned the ball over 18 times, and Bennett applauded his team’s defensive effort. The Cavaliers forced three shot-clock violations, blocked six shots and came up with eight steals.
“Good offensive teams, good shooting teams, you can’t always stop them,” Bennett said. “Your job is just to make them earn … I thought for the most part there were some tough defensive stands.”
At the other end of the court, Virginia rode the shooting of 6-foot-9 forward Jake Groves, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma who began his college career at Eastern Washington.
“Groves was groovin’ tonight,” Bennett said, smiling. “He had rhythm and you could just see it. The ball was coming out of his hand, we ran a couple actions for him, and the guys did a good job of finding him.”
No. 34 checked into the game with 13:31 left in the first half. Twenty-six seconds later, Groves hit his first shot, a 3-pointer from the left wing on which senior point guard Reece Beekman assisted. About a minute later, backup point guard Dante Harris passed to Groves for another trey, this one from the top of the key.
“He turned around to the bench and celebrated and I was like, ‘OK, he’s gonna be on fire for the rest of the game,’ ” Beekman said.
“Once you let a guy get in a rhythm, it makes it really tough,” Shrewsberry said.
— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) February 1, 2024
By halftime, Groves had made five 3-pointers, matching his career high. He added another trey in the second half and finished with a season-high 18 points.
“I feel like we did a great job finding him when he was open, getting him open looks, and he knocked it down,” Beekman said. “That was big for us today.”
For the season, Groves is shooting 48.4 percent from long range. His teammates and coaches have implored him not to pass up open looks, but at times he’s been hesitant to shoot. Not Wednesday night.
“It was just beautiful,” Bennett, something of an authority on the subject, said of Groves’ shooting.
At some point, Groves said, “you’ve kind of got to look yourself in the mirror and go, ‘OK, that’s probably my role, to shoot the ball more.’ And so I think that and then just seeing that first one go in is always nice and kind of gives you the confidence to keep shooting.”
Virginia, 9 of 15 from beyond the arc in the first half, finished 13 of 25. The 13 treys are a season-high for the Cavaliers. Beekman made a career-best four 3-pointers, and sophomore guard Isaac McKneely added three.
“Sometimes the shots go in,” Bennett said, “and sometimes they don’t. I thought why we’ve been a better team as of late is we’ve been better defensively, and I think that helps a lot of things.”
UVA forward Ryan Dunn took only one shot and went scoreless for the first time this season, but the 6-foot-8 sophomore had an impact nonetheless, with five rebounds and two blocked shots. Dunn, who leads the Hoos with 47 blocks, might have had another Wednesday night, but Notre Dame guard Logan Imes, on a fast break, spotted No. 13 racing down the court and wisely chose to pull the ball out late in the first half.
The Cavaliers’ 3-point shooting aside, “I think we came in here with the right mindset,” Groves said. “The way we practice every day is just tough-nosed, hard defense, Virginia defense. And so that was one of those things that I thought we did a good job of: kind of setting the tone early and making them take tough shots and really just sticking with it, cleaning the ball up on the glass and making them take and make those tough shots if they’re going to beat us.”
Freshman guards Markus Burton and Braeden Shrewsberry (Micah’s son) scored 17 and 16 points, respectively, for the Irish, whose associate head coach, Kyle Getter, spent five seasons on Bennett’s staff at UVA.
“It may not seem like it,” the elder Shrewsberry said, “but I thought we executed a lot better than we have coming in. We scored 53 points, which isn’t setting the world on fire or anything, but it is Virginia and they do that to people. They just squeeze the life out of you defensively and make it really hard for you.”
Beekman (five turnovers) was sloppier with the ball than Bennett would have liked, but he shined otherwise. The reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Beekman matched his career high with 21 points, and his six assists and four steals were game highs. Graduate student Jordan Minor led Virginia with six rebounds, and his backup at center, freshman Blake Buchanan, grabbed five rebounds in only nine minutes. Also solid off the bench were Harris (four points, three assists) and junior swingman Taine Murray (four points, four assists).
This is Bennett’s 15th season with the Cavaliers, who won the national title in 2019 and have been regulars in the NCAA tournament during his tenure. Their five-game winning streak has bolstered their postseason résumé, but many challenges lie ahead, starting this weekend.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, in a game to air on ESPN, Virginia meets Clemson (14-6, 4-5) at Littlejohn Coliseum. This is the sixth of seven straight Saturday road games for UVA.
“Big test,” Bennett said. “They all are.”
With January behind them, the Hoos know they have little margin for error. The players don’t necessarily talk much about their NCAA tournament prospects, but “it’s always in the back of our mind,” Groves said. “Regardless of where we are right now, I think we’re starting to hit our stride and play without a doubt our best basketball of the season.”
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