Coming off of a victory against Miami on March 1, the No. 21 Virginia men’s basketball team kept the ball rolling with a clutch win over Louisville to lock up the 2021 ACC regular season title. The Cavaliers (17-6, 13-4 ACC) dominated against the Cardinals (13-6, 8-5 ACC) for 40 minutes to come away victorious, 68-58.
“I told them [the team] before the game, I took this job at Virginia to hopefully have chances at title fights,” Coach Tony Bennettt said. “I’m so grateful, I really am, because it has been a unique year to say the least.”
Virginia’s opportunity to secure its 10th regular season conference championship was made possible earlier in the day as then-ACC leader Florida State was defeated by Notre Dame, 83-73. The Cavalier win also places the team into the No. 1 seed for the upcoming ACC Tournament.
“When they [Florida State] ended up actually losing, we couldn’t have a blind eye to it,” senior forward Sam Hauser said. “We knew what was at stake and I think that gave us even more motivation for this game.”
As the two teams tipped off Saturday from the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., Virginia managed to jump out to a 12-6 lead eight minutes into the game. The Cavaliers’ early lead was mainly attributed to stellar shooting from the floor – six-of-eight for Virginia compared to three-of-eight for Louisville.
Hauser had the hot hand all throughout the match-up, making back-to-back jump shots to put the Cavaliers up 18-8. In spite of trailing, the Cardinals fought to stay in the mix as two consecutive buckets from sophomore forward Quinn Slazinski and sophomore guard David Johnson made the score 22-19.
“There were stretches where they were making runs and we were able to withstand those,” junior guard Trey Murphy said.
With under five minutes to play in the first half, senior forward Jay Huff spun towards the basket and scored to begin building the Virginia lead up. Hauser buried a step-back jumper which was followed up with a layup by freshman guard Reece Beekman to go into the locker room leading 28-21.
The Cavalier defense proved to be stifling and suffocating in the first frame, forcing Louisville to miss their last seven shots of the half. Additionally, one of the Cardinals’ best players, graduate student guard Carlik Jones was held scoreless with zero points on zero-of-eight shooting from the floor.
Hauser and Huff led Virginia in scoring with 10 and eight points, respectively, while Johnson led Louisville with six points.
Heading into the second half, the Cavaliers maintained their lead at 36-29 with approximately four minutes gone by. A possession later, Hauser rose up and delivered the first Virginia three-pointer of the game to extend the advantage to 39-29.
Johnson responded on the other side for the Cardinals with a three-pointer of his own. The shot spurred a nine-to-two run for Louisville that brought the score to 41-38 in favor of the Cavaliers.
The two teams continued to go back and forth down the stretch as the scoreline remained tight at 51-47 with about 10 minutes left to play in regulation. Despite the tightening of the game, senior guard Tomas Woldetensae was fouled from beyond the arc and nailed three straight free throws.
“A pivotal moment was when Tomas [Woldetensae] got fouled shooting that three-ball in the corner and made all three free throws,” Bennett said. “They were coming back so I thought that was significant.”
The free throws by Woldetensae symbolized a turning point in the contest because the Cardinals were unable to get close enough again to overtake Virginia. A pair of buckets from sophomore forward Justin McKoy provided the Cavaliers with their largest lead of the game to that point at 60-49.
“Justin [McKoy] gave us really valuable minutes,” Murphy said. “He came in and rebounded the ball really well offensively and defensively.”
From there on, a collective effort including the likes of Beekman and Murphy allowed the team to seal the deal, 68-58. Virginia outshot Louisville in field goal percentage at 51.92 percent compared to 36.84 percent.
Hauser led the Cavaliers with a stellar 24 points and eight rebounds and was closely followed by Murphy, who had 17 points. Johnson was the scoring leader for the Cardinals with 14 points on six-of-17 shooting.
“At the start of the year this was one of our goals and we can check the box off, but we’ve got a lot more to do for sure,” Hauser said. “But it’s definitely great to get this championship and be a part of this program.”
Now having secured the No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament, Virginia will head to Greensboro, N.C. to compete against their conference rivals. The Cavaliers’ first game is slated to take place on March 11 against an opponent that is to be announced