— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) February 6, 2024
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Less than a month ago, fresh off its fourth consecutive double-digit road loss, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team was not even part of the NCAA tournament conversation.
Now look at the Cavaliers. Seven straight wins later, they’re the hottest team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and their postseason prospects look infinitely brighter.
“I think right now we’re obviously playing our best basketball of the year,” Virginia forward Jake Groves said, “which is awesome, considering it’s February.”
The winning streak started Jan. 17 at John Paul Jones Arena, where UVA defeated Virginia Tech in the first of the in-state rivals’ two regular-season meetings. Since then, the Wahoos (18-5 overall, 9-3 ACC) have won at Georgia Tech, Louisville and Clemson and at home against NC State, Notre Dame and Miami.
“I think we’ve established some things,” head coach Tony Bennett said. “It’s just about execution, hustle and confidence.”
Three Cavaliers who, for various reasons, were not part of the rotation early in the season—center Jordan Minor, swingman Taine Murray and guard Dante Harris—are now playing significant roles, “and that gives us a different look,” Bennett said.
Miami can vouch for the Hoos’ transformation. After building a 7-2 lead Monday night at JPJ, the Hurricanes succumbed to Virginia’s ruthless offensive efficiency and defensive excellence. UVA went ahead at the 11:28 mark of the first half and never let the Canes back in the game.
“It’s just Virginia basketball,” freshman center Blake Buchanan said, “and we’re getting back to it.”
The final score was 60-38, which spoke to the Hoos’ total dominance in their 23rd consecutive win at JPJ. Not since 1948 had the Canes scored so few points in a game.
“They have offensive talent, you can see that,” Bennett said, “and today they just weren’t right, but we were right.”
Since their Jan. 13 loss at Wake Forest, the Hoos have been right more than often than not. Their resurgence, Bennett said Monday night, stems largely from their improvement in the area he emphasizes most.
“Our defense has gotten a little more stingy and a little more connected,” Bennett said.
Virginia missed 8 of its first 9 shots from the floor Monday night, but its defense kept the Canes (15-8, 6-6) from building a substantial lead. Once senior guard Reece Beekman scored on a drive, its offense started humming, too, and back-to-back 3-pointers by sophomore guard Isaac McKneely and Groves, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, pushed the Hoos’ lead to 14-7 and sent the home fans in the crowd of 14,165 into a frenzy.
For the game, Virginia shot 48.1 percent from the floor and committed only three turnovers, matching its season low. The Hoos were 5 of 11 from 3-point range.
“It was good basketball,” Bennett said. “I thought we moved hard. We got the ball to the right spots, had a variety of shots. Didn’t shoot a ton of 3s, but I felt we got into the lane and made the plays and had some good drives, good pocket passes, and the guys were sharing the ball, and to me that was good. Good Virginia basketball on both ends.”
The Canes, who arrived at JPJ averaging 80.8 points per game, didn’t reach the 20-point mark until nearly seven minutes elapsed in the second half. Against the Cavaliers’ trademark Pack Line defense, Miami shot only 28.6 percent from the floor overall and was 2 for 20 from 3-point range.
“They just outplayed us in every aspect of the game,” Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga, a former UVA assistant, said in a postgame media availability that he ended after one question. “We didn’t play well; they played really well.”
Miami guard Kyshawn George (7.9 ppg) suffered an injury about four minutes into the game and didn’t return.
“They don’t play a ton of guys, so when they lose one of their perimeter starters, that affected them a bit,” Bennett said. “But I just thought our guys, like we’ve done the last few games, we moved hard on offense and tried to play really hard defensively. We just really tried to focus on not letting them get stuff in transition. That was really important, because they can get going.”
Junior guard Nigel Pack, who came in as Miami’s second-leading scorer, had the misfortune of facing Beekman, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Pack was 0 for 8 from the floor and finished with two points.
“Some nights you don’t have your shot,” Bennett said. “They were off, and we were just trying to focus as hard and as well as we could on making them earn, because I’ve seen them make tough shots. I’ve seen what Pack has done in the second half of his last two games, but Reece really took the challenge to try to be there and bother or contest every shot, and we started with not letting them get going in transition and then just had that mindset.”
Norchad Omier led Miami with a double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds), but Virginia’s interior tandem of Minor and Buchanan made the 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward earn every one of those points.
“Jordan has been terrific for us,” Bennett said, “but I thought tonight, Blake’s activity, he was mobile, he was flying around. Jordan was good and he bothered [Omier] at certain times, but he didn’t have quite that pep in his step. That’s the beauty of it. Those guys, they can complement each other.”
Bennett smiled. “Maybe Jordan was still fatigued from going against [Clemson center] PJ Hall on Saturday. And he did good things, don’t get me wrong, Jordan did, but I thought Blake’s activity was noticeable.”
Beekman posted game highs in points (16) and assists (seven) and also had four rebounds. With 575 career assists, he now ranks fifth all-time at UVA.
The 6-foot-9 Groves, one of the heroes in Virginia’s win at Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday, stayed hot Monday night. He came off the bench to hit 5 of 9 shots, including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc. Groves has made 14 of his past 20 attempts from 3-point range.
Beekman and Groves were the only Cavaliers to score in double figures Monday night, but McKneely contributed nine points, six rebounds and a season-high four assists, and Buchanan had six points in 22-plus minutes off the bench. In front of nearly two dozen NBA scouts, sophomore forward Ryan Dunn pulled down a team-high eight rebounds and also had eight points, two blocked shots and two steals.
Few college players can match Dunn’s combination of size (6-foot-8, 216 pounds) and athleticism. In one memorable sequence late in the first half Monday night, No. 13 blocked a shot by guard Bensley Joseph and then, as Murray corralled the rebound, sprinted toward the other end. Murray, who matched his career high with four assists, passed ahead to Dunn, who swooped in from the right side for a left-handed layup that pushed Virginia’s lead to 20-11.
“It kind of goes back to what I’ve said about Ryan Dunn before: He makes several plays every game where I’m just fascinated and I’m like, ‘Man, this guy’s incredible,’ ” Groves said. “It’s one of those things where being his teammate, you try not to take that stuff for granted and just enjoy watching him while you can.”
Next up for the Cavaliers is the seventh of seven straight Saturday road games, a stretch that began Dec. 30 at Notre Dame. At 8 p.m. Saturday, in a game to air on The CW, Virginia meets Florida State (12-9, 6-4) in Tallahassee.
“Our defense has to travel,” Bennett said.
The defense never rests is one of his favorite sayings. “The second you think you have it defensively, it’s gone,” Bennett said, “and you have to just have an iron will and a mindset in how you practice and how these guys will approach it. The choice is all of ours and theirs. Will they continue on in this path? Because they found an identity and it has to stick that way.”
Virginia improved to 13-0 this season at JPJ, where many fans took part in a White Out on Monday night. Groves, who began his college career at Eastern Washington, said JPJ is “one of the best venues I’ve played in, in college basketball, and so I’m lucky and glad to be able to call it home court.”
The Cavaliers will be back at JPJ next Tuesday night to host Pittsburgh. In the interim, another road win would further bolster UVA’s postseason credentials, but Bennett doesn’t discuss bracketology with his players. His message is simple: Just show up and play like there’s no tomorrow.
That’s been the Hoos’ approach during their winning streak, and “it’s crazy how a team’s confidence can change,” Groves said. “And so I think we’re a very, very confident group right now, which is great. And I think as Coach Bennett would say, you’ve just got to keep getting better every single day.”
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