No. 15 Virginia men’s basketball took down Saint Francis 76-51 in the team’s home opener — rebounding from an upset loss to San Francisco Friday. After tumbling 11 spots in the latest AP Poll, the Cavaliers (2-1, 0-0 ACC) flexed their muscles on both ends of the floor early in the game before coasting to a dominant victory over the Red Flash (2-1, 0-0 NEC).
“If they thought we were invincible and were just gonna show up, no way,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “We’ve got work to do. That was the message [following the loss Friday].”
From the opening tip, Virginia’s offense appeared significantly more fluid than in the loss to the Dons — continually feeding the ball down low for easy buckets. Following a pair of free throws by sophomore forward Justin McKoy on the opening possession, the Cavaliers’ first five field goals all came inside the paint.
For Bennett, the easier points must have been a welcome sight following a game in which the team struggled to score when outside shots were not falling.
Asserting their dominance early, the Cavaliers quickly built a 21-4 lead heading into the under-12-minute media timeout with senior forward Sam Hauser and senior forward Jay Huff each scoring a pair of buckets along the way. After a pair of three-pointers on back-to-back possessions by Saint Francis freshman guard Maxwell Land and sophomore guard Bryce Laskey cut the deficit to 11, the Cavaliers closed the half on a 24-3 run.
Highlighting the run was an eight-point burst in the span of just over a minute by senior guard Tomas Woldentensae, who hit a pair of three-pointers and two free throws. Throughout the half, Virginia showcased a remarkably balanced offense, as nine players entered the scoring column with Huff leading the way at 11 points.
The Cavaliers had a 45-13 advantage going into the halftime break after racking up 26 points in the paint alone in the first half while shooting a blistering 88 percent from inside the three-point line.
The Cavaliers continued their hot scoring heading into the opening stages of the second half, surpassing their point total from the previous game with just under 15 minutes left to play.
However, Saint Francis eventually found its footing on both ends of the floor — embarking on a 12-0 run from to close the deficit from 42 to 30 points. Redshirt freshman forward Kadin Shedrick helped end the run as he scored Virginia’s next six points but as a whole, the Cavaliers’ offense sputtered over the game’s final 13 minutes — scoring only 14 points during that span.
After scoring a mere 13 points in the opening frame, the Red Flash nearly tripled their first half output — scoring 38 points in the second half and shooting almost 52 percent from the field. Over the course of the game, Saint Francis was led by Laskey’s 12 points and senior forward Mark Flagg’s 11 points.
While Virginia managed to walk out with a lopsided final scoreline of 76-51, the Red Flash outscored the Cavaliers by seven points in the second half. Although some of that advantage came after all of Virginia’s starters were pulled for the remainder of the game, Bennett and the Cavaliers will certainly have plenty to clean up heading into more competitive games in the near future — notably their Dec. 9 meeting with No. 8 Michigan State.
“They outscored us 38-31 in the second half,” Bennett said. “I thought we were not persistent enough defensively. There were breakdowns, so they outplayed us in the second half.”
Interestingly, in the early stages of each half, Bennett seemed to implement a platoon system of substitution — referring to the substitution of the entire lineup following each media timeout. This style of rotating players is rarely used in basketball and can only be utilized on a team that possesses significant depth.
In college basketball’s most recent high-profile case of the platoon system, Coach John Calapari led an absurdly talented Kentucky team in 2014-15 to 38 consecutive wins and nearly completed a perfect 40-0 season before losing in the Final Four. While this Virginia team is not nearly as talented on paper as that Kentucky squad — which was full of five-star recruits — how Bennett manages the roster going forward will undoubtedly be one of the season’s most compelling storylines.
“We kind of did the hockey shifts,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if we will be able to do that. You’re always looking for the best rotation. Sometimes it has to do with matchups, sometimes it’s how guys are playing and performing, but there is quality depth.”
Notably, after a rocky start to his 2020 campaign, junior guard Kihei Clark started the game on the bench, with freshman guard Reece Beekman taking his spot. Despite only totalling two points, Beekman had a relatively strong outing — posting four assists to zero turnovers. After 69 minutes of action for Beekman in 2020, he has yet to commit a single turnover — a surefire route to earning more playing time.
The Cavaliers will be back in action Friday at John Paul Jones Arena against Kent State. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. and the game will be televised on the ACC Network.