No. 25 Virginia men’s basketball dropped its season-opener to the Navy Midshipmen by a score of 66-58. The Cavaliers (0-1, 0-0 ACC) could not overcome the hot shooting of the Midshipmen (1-0, 0-0 Patriot League) and struggled to gain offensive momentum as the second half ticked away.
Despite a strong performance from transfer forward Jayden Gardner - who led the Cavaliers with 18 points in the loss - Virginia could not find enough support on the offensive side of the ball to close the gap with Navy. Midshipmen guard John Carter Jr. caused fits for Virginia with 19 points of his own - going an impressive five for eight from the three-point line.
The first minutes of the opening half saw the Cavaliers climb back from an early 5-0 deficit, with junior guard Kody Stattmann giving Virginia an early 10-8 lead that would not hold for long. Navy — having capitalized on four straight three pointers — gave themselves a surprising seven-point advantage with 9:59 to play in the first half.
Virginia would narrow the gap to three points — as close as they would come as the first half waned down — yet Navy continued its barrage of three-pointers from Carter Jr. to take a 42-35 lead heading into the second period of play.
For reference, Virginia had given up a total of 42 points to Towson in their season opener in 2018. The Pack-Line - still in its early stages for many of the transfers and newcomers - saw the Cavaliers give up as many points in a half as they had allowed to Syracuse in the 2019 opener — a game in which the Orange only mustered 34 points.
The Midshipmen had remarkably completed eight of its twelve three-point attempts in the first half, while the Cavaliers only witnessed two of their attempts cash in. Regardless, Navy capitalized upon some poor rebounding and inexperienced defense to prey upon the Pack-Line from the wings.
Virginia stormed back into contention in the beginning minutes of the second half, riding a 7-2 run on the heels of a three-pointer from senior guard Kihei Clark and a dunk from sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick. However, the brief momentum coming off of the half abruptly sputtered when Navy converted two of its three-point attempts to take a 51-44 lead with 14:06 to play.
The Cavaliers would not go quietly into the night. Playing in a game of scoring surges and dry spells, Virginia furiously clawed back to tie the game at 53-53 as Gardner added two buckets within the span of 49 seconds. The tide had seemed to turn in the favor of the Cavaliers, yet the late stages of the second half would prove to be the team’s kryptonite.
After a Shedrick layup with 8:45 to play, Virginia would undergo a scoring spell of over eight minutes. The Cavaliers simply could not score the ball, fumbling chances under the basket and missing key three-point opportunities. Navy — who also struggled to score early in the spell — ultimately tallied unanswered points to take a 64-55 lead with 24 seconds remaining.
The damage had been done by the time junior guard Armaan Franklin ended the scoring drought with a three-pointer of his own. Virginia would fall 66-58 in a game featuring some serious concerns over shooting and the Pack-Line’s effectiveness.
“It’s hard to beat a solid team when you turn the ball over 14 times, and you give up 10 offensive rebounds. We've got to become a little tougher physically and a little more gritty, mentally to last longer in these games. That's part of the growing process,” Coach Tony Bennett said about his team’s physicality.
Despite Navy controlling the rebound total by a tally of 35-30 and converting 11 of 21 three-point attempts, there remain a few bright spots for the Cavaliers in the surprising loss. Gardner may have very well solidified himself as the primary scorer and a physical bruiser for Virginia, having thrived off of the pick and roll and one-on-one matchups in the frontcourt.
Sophomore guard Reece Beekman — who ended the game with eight points and six steals — has the kind of intangibles to lead this team for years to come. His defensive tenacity was on full display last night, with the Louisiana native wreaking havoc on-ball and mirroring Clark’s signature press. Clark also poured in 12 points of his own in the loss and proved that he can complement Gardner as the team’s secondary scoring option.
Regardless of the outcome, the Cavaliers will likely improve as they adapt to the Pack-Line defense and a year with fans and crowded arenas. There is no sense in overreacting to an early loss to a quality opponent — a team which ended their 2020-21 season with a 18-7 record — and believing that the same quality of play will continue in the future. Bennett will rally his troops as the Cavaliers head into more non-conference play.
Virginia will look to bounce back from the defeat with a matchup against in-state opponent Radford on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. and the game will be televised on ACC Network Extra.