By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It’s been more than a decade since a 20-win season qualified as an unexpected development for a University of Virginia men’s basketball team. In 14-plus seasons under head coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have posted a 361-131 record, and they’ve won 20 or more games 12 times.

Never, however, have the Wahoos reached the 20-win mark with a victory that followed a less conventional script than the one they secured Saturday afternoon before a capacity crowd at John Paul Jones Arena.

In their rematch with ACC foe Wake Forest, which defeated them by 19 points last month in Winston-Salem, N.C., the No. 21 Hoos missed 10 of 11 free throws. They shot 40.7 percent overall and made only four 3-pointers. Moreover, they gave away two points when Bennett was called for only the second technical foul of his UVA tenure, and the first since the final regular-season game of his first season (2009-10).

And yet when the final horn sounded, the scoreboard read: Virginia 49, Wake Forest 47.

“Obviously to do that, with that kind of free-throw shooting, I think we leaned into our defense,” Bennett said, “and the crowd was into it as well, and we needed it all.”

The Demon Deacons, who came in averaging 80.3 points per game, ran into a UVA team that had struggled defensively against Florida State and Pittsburgh, its two most recent opponents. The Cavaliers had no such problems at that end of the court Saturday. They blocked a season-high 13 shots and held Wake guard Hunter Sallis, who’d torched them at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, to 12 points. The Deacons (16-9 overall, 8-6 ACC) shot 34.5 percent from the floor and were 5 for 21 from 3-point range.

“I know Pitt, they hit a lot of shots on us, but today we got back into our defensive mindset,” senior guard Reece Beekman said.

“It was better,” Bennett said of his team’s defense, “and it needed to be.”

The Hoos, playing their first Saturday game at JPJ since Dec. 16, improved to 20-6 overall and 11-4 in the ACC. They’re assured of finishing with a winning record in ACC play for the 13th consecutive season. It all starts with Bennett, said his Wake counterpart.

“He’s a Hall of Fame coach,” Steve Forbes said, “and Virginia is very fortunate to have him here, not just as a coach, as a person.”

Many of Bennett’s teams at Virginia have featured more offensive firepower than his current group, which has only two players (Beekman and sophomore guard Isaac McKneely) averaging more than 8.9 points per game. But UVA has two elite defenders in Beekman and sophomore forward Ryan Dunn, and they shined again Saturday.

Beekman, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, hounded Sallis for much of the game, and the 6-foot-8 Dunn blocked a career-best seven shots (and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds).

“Oh, my gosh,” Bennett said when he saw Dunn’s block total in the box score.

“He had a crazy game today defensively,” Beekman said.

Dunn often guarded Andrew Carr, a 6-foot-10 forward who came in averaging 14 points per game. Carr was 1 for 7 from the floor Saturday and finished with four points.

“I thought Andrew had some good looks,” Forbes said. “I think he has a hard time getting by Dunn, and who doesn’t?”

Wake went into the break up 22-21, but Beekman score 10 of his game-high 20 points early in the second half as UVA built a five-point lead. It didn’t last. The Deacs ran off six unanswered points to go ahead 32-31, but the Hoos punched back. A pullup jumper by McKneely put them back on top, 33-32, and their lead grew to seven when Beekman turned a steal into a fast-break dunk that brought the crowd to its feet with 9:14 remaining.

“Great environment here,” Forbes said. “A wonderful fan base cheering for their team.”

Those cheers didn’t help the home team at the line. With 6:31 to play, freshman center Blake Buchanan missed two free throws. Senior center Jordan Minor did the same 24 seconds later.

With 39.6 seconds remaining, after converting a stickback that put Virginia up 48-44, Buchanan missed a free throw that would have completed a three-point play. Dunn missed the front end of a one-and-one with 37 seconds left, and Beekman followed suit with 16.4 seconds to play.

“I’ll probably never see a Tony Bennett team shoot that poorly from the free-throw line again,” Forbes said.

Finally, after a Sallis trey cut Virginia’s lead to 48-47, the Deacons fouled McKneely with 6.7 seconds remaining. It was their 10th foul of the half, and so No. 11 was awarded two free throws. McKneely missed the first, and the home fans groaned. He made the second, however, and Wake, with no timeouts left, hurried the ball up the court.

Forbes wanted the ball in the hands of Sallis, but junior guard Cameron Hildreth (2 for 10 from the floor) dribbled into the frontcourt where, blanketed by Dunn, he settled for a contested fadeaway jumper that didn’t come close to going in.

“I trust RD in that situation to stay in front of Hildreth,” Beekman said.

Two Cavaliers scored in double figures Saturday: Beekman and McKneely (12 points). If McKneely’s final free throw was big, his final field goal was even more important. Coming out of the final media timeout, the Hoos had possession and a one-point lead. They ran a play that started with Andrew Rohde’s pass to Beekman on the left wing. Beekman then drove the baseline and fired a pass to the right corner, where McKneely was uncovered. McKneely had missed his first three attempts from beyond the arc, but this one found the mark and gave Virginia a 46-42 lead.

“We hadn’t used it,” Bennett said, “and I thought there might be an opportunity and if it wasn’t there, we just would play on. But that was a big-time pass by Reece and a big-time shot by Isaac that we needed, obviously, with the way we were at the free-throw line.”

Another standout was Buchanan, who in 20-plus minutes off the bench contributed six points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots.

“He is continuous,” Bennett said. “He’s quick footed. He’s getting more comfortable, and you need his length and his quickness.”

Reece Beekman

This is alumni weekend for the men’s program, and the crowd included such former players as Wally Walker, Rick Carlisle, Terry Gates, Sean Singletary, Kihei Clark, Trey Murphy III and Akil Mitchell.

“They built this program, so to just come out and get the win [and let them] see that they left something good behind, it means a lot,” Beekman said. “Kihei has been with us at practice [this week]. I love playing with him again.”

At his postgame press conference, Bennett apologized for using language that prompted official Mark Schnur to slap him with a technical late in the first half. Kevin Miller hit both free throws to push Wake’s lead to 20-17, “but I think it gave us some energy,” Beekman said. “We see [Bennett] fired up, and everybody else is like, OK, let’s get fired up with him.”

COMMONWEALTH CLASH, PART 2: Next up for UVA is the second of its two regular-season meetings with Virginia Tech is Monday night. The first was Jan. 17 at JPJ, where the Hoos defeated the Hokies 65-57.

The rematch is Monday at 7 p.m. In a game to air on ESPN, UVA will meet Tech (14-11, 6-8) in Blacksburg. “It’ll be a very intense atmosphere,” Bennett said.

The Hokies lost at No. 7 North Carolina on Saturday afternoon.

The Cavaliers are seeking their first victory at Cassell Coliseum since Feb. 26, 2020, when Kihei Clark’s 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds left lifted them to a 56-53 win over the Hokies.

“I think we’ve just got to come with the right mindset,” Beekman said. “It’s a quick turnaround, and it’s hard to play in that environment.”

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Ryan Dunn