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Men’s basketball rebounds from Houston loss with 68-52 victory over Coppin State

Despite converting only five of eighteen three-pointed attempts, the Cavaliers outlasted the Eagles in the third meeting between the two schools.

After a resounding loss to No. 15 Houston on Tuesday, Virginia downed MEAC foe Coppin State Friday by a score of 68-52. The Cavaliers (2-2, 0-0 ACC) once again reached deep into its bench against the Eagles (1-6, 0-0 MEAC), with Coach Tony Bennett employing various rotations featuring some newcomers. 

The Cavaliers witnessed a completely different start to the game against the Eagles after notching eight unanswered points in the first four minutes. With Coppin State struggling against the Pack-Line, Virginia surged to a 19-4 lead and never looked back. A notable appearance from the Cavalier bench came from freshman forward Igor Milicic Jr. — a 6-foot-10 guard/forward from Croatia — who tallied a quick five points after a three-pointer and midrange jumper. 

In a somewhat slow finish to the half, the Eagles cut the advantage to 30-20 yet saw the Cavaliers regain some momentum after a five-point run. Virginia — having struggled a little offensively — managed to contain Coppin State’s volume shooting, as the Eagles completed only 7 of their 27 field goal attempts in the first half. Moreover, the Cavaliers — who failed to slow Houston down from the three-point arc — limited any quality attempts from Coppin State to cash in from deep.

More of that defensive tenacity from the Cavaliers continued into the second half, as a 44-26 advantage seemed to put the game out of reach. Although Coppin State clawed back to narrow the lead to 12, four free throws from senior forward Jayden Gardner and a dunk from sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick once again extended the margin of victory to 19 with 7:49 to play. In a return to normalcy with regards to the Pack-Line’s efficiency, the Cavaliers ended their non-conference contest with a 68-52 win against the overpowered Eagles.

“I think he's just a relentless worker,” Bennett said of Milicic Jr. “He's always spending time, whether or not it's an off day, he's in the gym getting shots up. He's trying to learn and understand. He's really been a perimeter player his whole life. When we looked at him sometimes, we’ll play him at the four spot, sometimes we'll play him at the perimeter spot.”

Milicic Jr. notched 11 points in his coming out party for the Cavaliers, as he joined Gardner, Shedrick and senior guard Kihei Clark as the four Virginia players who scored in double digits. Gardner re-established his role as top interior scorer for a team desperately needing offensive production, having recorded 14 points and 12 rebounds in the win. Shedrick — who was somewhat of a question mark before the season —  had three blocks in his third consecutive game with three or more rejections. 

Although the Cavaliers came out with a victory, ball security remained a serious concern.  Bennett’s teams have typically garnered national attention for controlling the pace of play, yet emerging offensive woes have led to some carelessness with the ball. Virginia ended the game with 11 turnovers — the same mark as the Eagles albeit a slight improvement from the 17 turnovers against Houston.

Virginia will likely adjust to their signature, slow style of play and will continue to search for their offensive identity. Players such as sophomore guard Malachi Poindexter — a Charlottesville native who recorded a career-high 14 minutes of play — will be circulated into the lineup at times as Bennett experiments with the new personnel at his disposal. This is the norm for Virginia teams during the non-conference slate, as newcomers like Milicic Jr. have shown moments of brilliance even in limited action.

The Cavaliers will now travel to Newark, N.J. to take on a more formidable foe — the Georgia Bulldogs — in the 2021 Legends Classic Monday. The winner between the two will go on to play either Northwestern (4-0) or Providence (4-0) in the finals of the four team tournament. Regardless of outcome, the Cavaliers will have another game Tuesday, either competing in the championship or the third-place game.  Another story to note, former Cavalier and Georgia transfer Jabri Abdur-Rahim will take on his old team in an unlikely matchup between the ACC and SEC on a neutral site. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPNU.