Career night for @IsaacMcKneely!
— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) February 11, 2024
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, a stretch of seven consecutive Saturday road games—all against ACC opponents—began Dec. 30 with a one-sided loss to Notre Dame at Purcell Pavilion.
It ended with the Cavaliers’ eighth straight victory, this one over Florida State. Led by sophomore guard Isaac McKneely, whose 29 points were seven more than his previous career high, the ACC’s hottest team defeated FSU 80-76 late Saturday night in front of a crowd of 8,525 at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
“He’s having a heck of a year and he’s a good one,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said of the 6-foot-4 McKneely. “He’s had a few coming-out parties, but tonight he was really good in terms of showing what he could do in big-time spots.”
Senior guard Reece Beekman also sparkled for UVA (19-5 overall, 10-3 ACC), which trails only North Carolina in the ACC standings. The reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Beekman matched his career high with 21 points and added four rebounds, five assists and two steals.
“We’re trending upwards, getting towards the top of the standings,” Beekman said, “and we just want to stay there.”
After losing to Notre Dame, the Wahoos fell to NC State and Wake Forest, respectively, on the next two Saturdays, and neither game was close. But the Hoos broke through against Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Jan. 20, and they’ve since won at Louisville, Clemson and Florida State.
“I just think it’s us growing up and finding ways and settling a little more on a rotation,” Bennett said, “and guys improving their game.”
UVA led for the final 35 minutes and 55 seconds Saturday, but this was anything but a routine victory.
“Oh, man, that was a doozy,” Beekman said after logging 36-plus minutes, the most of any player at the Tucker Center, where the visitors’ cheering section include Keith Wall, who coached Bennett at Preble High in Green Bay, Wis., and former Virginia football star Angelo Crowell.
Every time the Hoos separated, FSU (13-10, 7-5) responded with a run of its own. The Cavaliers built their lead to 11 midway through the second half, only to see the Seminoles score nine unanswered points in about 90 seconds. A 3-pointer by graduate transfer Jake Groves pushed Virginia’s lead back to five, and the fourth of McKneely’s five treys made it 67-57 with 4:40 to play.
Again, FSU fought back. After a stickback by freshman center Blake Buchanan gave the Hoos a 12-point lead, the Noles scored on five of their next six possessions and trailed by only four with a minute left.
McKneely, who was 5 of 7 from long range, made his final 3-pointer with 56.4 seconds left. That gave the Cavaliers a seven-point advantage, and after an FSU basket, two free throws by sophomore swingman Andrew Rohde pushed the lead back to seven.
The Seminoles kept coming and cut their deficit to two, but McKneely went 3 for 4 from the line in the final eight seconds to seal the victory for Virginia.
“I think that’s a great win for us,” McKneely said. “We kept stretching the lead and they just kept fighting back, going downhill, getting and-ones, getting some turnovers. We knew they were gonna create some turnovers, and we knew that the game was never over until the clock hit zero. So we just had to keep fighting.”
In 15 seasons under Bennett, the Cavaliers have become known for their defensive prowess, and they were coming off a win over Miami in which they allowed only 38 points.
Bennett came to Tallahassee hoping for a similar performance from UVA’s defense, but “it didn’t show up the way it did against Miami,” he said.
“I felt like we’ve really been coming defensively, and tonight that didn’t feel as good. Credit to Florida State, the way they can make some plays and attack [the basket].”
The Noles sank only 2 of 16 shots from 3-point range, but they were 22 for 31 (71 percent) from inside the arc. They drove the ball relentlessly, and the officials rewarded their assertiveness. FSU shot 33 free throws and made 26 of them. UVA forward Ryan Dunn fouled out, and Beekman and Groves finished with four personals apiece.
“Our defense had stretches where it was solid, but it wasn’t sharp enough,” Bennett said. “We fouled a lot … We didn’t have much resistance, and we had some breakdowns defensively that we’re going to have to clean up.”
When the Cavaliers review the videotape of the game, McKneely said, “I have a feeling we’re gonna be seeing a lot of things that we did wrong on defense, but luckily our offense came out to play today.”
— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) February 11, 2024
As usual, FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton has an exceptionally long and athletic team, and that forced Virginia to adjust when it had the ball.
“They did disrupt our whole offense,” McKneely said. “We pretty much had to scrap our whole offense and attack and slip ball screens and stuff like that. That’s what they do. They make you get out of your offense, get out of your comfort zones, but we were able to handle it for the most part. We had some turnovers here and there, but we handled it pretty well and we were able to win.”
FSU’s defensive pressure on the wings leaves the court “a little bit open,” Bennett said, “so you have to punch it off the dribble and go.”
Beekman, McKneely, Rohde and reserve point guard Dante Harris all did so. The Seminoles switch on every screen, so “you have to touch the paint [with drives],” Bennett said, “and I thought in the second half we had stretches of real good offense and then we had stretches of real good individual playmaking, and that was enough tonight. Barely.”
McKneely led the way. He went 8 for 9 from the line, recording a career high in each category. “Isaac was really clutch from all parts of the floor shooting the ball tonight,” Bennett said.
Almost from McKneely’s first day in the program, his teammates have urged him to assert himself offensively, and “tonight was awesome to see,” Beekman said. “He was locked in early, and it wasn’t just catch and shoot. He was making plays off the dribble and making plays for others. So that just shows his growth as a player, that first to second year jump, and I’m just excited to see his future, which is going to be very bright.”
The third Cavalier to score in double figures was the 6-foot-9 Groves (10 points). In his past five games, he’s 16 of 22 (72.7 percent) from 3-point range.
Asked about his hot streak, Groves said, “I try not to think too much about it and just go play hoops. I think our whole team is really on a roll right now, where we’ve got guys stepping up. Obviously, Isaac was big tonight and Reece was big, and I guess I made shots, did my part.”
Next up for the Hoos is a Tuesday night date with Pittsburgh (15-8, 6-6) at John Paul Jones Arena, where they’re 13-0 this season and have won 23 consecutive games.
“We just want to keep it rolling,” Beekman said.
Then comes a game against Wake Forest at JPJ on Saturday afternoon. That will be the Cavaliers’ first weekend home game since Dec. 16.
“Looking forward to it, big time,” Groves said.
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