Semifinal versus Georgia
Virginia basketball — as most other college basketball teams do — kicked off a multiple-team event at the Legends Classic in Newark, N.J. against Georgia Monday. The Cavaliers (4-2) were still searching for their first high-major win, while the Bulldogs (2-4) were looking to do the same. In a close match throughout, Virginia pulled away in the final five minutes to win 65-55.
Junior guard Armaan Franklin was the star of the game for Virginia, finishing with 23 points on 50 percent shooting. Defensively, sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick was stout once again, battling through foul trouble to record four blocks and solidify the front line for the Cavaliers.
It was a bit of a homecoming for one Georgia player in particular, as sophomore forward Jabri Abdur-Rahim was able to see — and attempt to defeat — his former team in the Cavaliers. The starting small forward, however, had a rough shooting night, finishing with just four points on 1-6 shooting.
Franklin started off extremely hot for the Cavaliers, scoring 11 of the team’s first 13 points as Virginia took a seven-point lead with 13:34 remaining in the first half. However, Georgia recovered on the back of graduate guard Jailyn Ingram, as his two three-pointers cut the lead to one.
For nearly the entire half, the game was extremely close, with Virginia’s seven-point lead being the largest of the entire first period. The Cavaliers — and especially Franklin — cooled off after their hot start, finishing just 3-11 from beyond the arc in the first half. For the Bulldogs, senior forward Braelen Bridges held down the fort, scoring 12 points and willing Georgia to a 34-31 halftime lead.
What was assumed to be an anomaly Friday against Coppin State may just be the norm in Coach Tony Bennett’s rotation, as sophomore guard Carson McCorkle and freshman guard Taine Murray both did not see playing time at all in the first half. The two athletes were predicted by many to be vying for sizable roles off the bench, but they seemed to have fallen out of Bennett’s favor for players such as freshman forward Igor Milicic Jr. McCorkle did end up playing in the second half, even hitting a three-pointer, but the Cavaliers’ rotation is clearly still being decided.
Virginia came out firing to start the second half in a similar manner to the first, flipping the score to take a 38-34 lead into the first media timeout. Senior guard Kihei Clark hit his first three-pointer of the game — undoubtedly a welcome sight for Virginia fans — and the Cavaliers played stout defense on the other end of the court.
Midway through the second half, however, Virginia found itself in severe foul trouble, with junior center Francisco Caffaro and Shedrick each picking up their fourth fouls in a rather unfortunate sequence of events at around the 11-minute mark. Thankfully for the Cavaliers, Milicic has proven himself ready enough to play, so he and senior forward Jayden Gardner played together in the latter period of the game. The Bulldogs were not immune to the foul trouble, as Bridges picked up his fourth soon after as the Cavaliers clung to a 47-46 lead with eight minutes left.
After a mini 6-0 run, Virginia looked to pull away, taking its largest lead of the half before Georgia sophomore guard Kario Oquendo hit a three-pointer to pull the score to 53-51 in favor of Virginia. Franklin answered for the Cavaliers with his 21st point of the night to put Virginia back up six with 2:34 remaining. The Cavaliers would not relinquish the lead again, finishing off the Bulldogs 65-55 to move to 3-2.
Although there were definitely areas to work on — the Cavaliers shot poorly both overall and from the three-point arc — it was good to see the team stay composed in their first truly close game down the stretch. Virginia committed just four turnovers all night and forced Georgia to shoot only 3-21 from beyond the arc. Overall, this was a very encouraging step forward for the Cavaliers, and one that hopefully carries over into the next few games before a break for final exams.
Final versus Providence
Virginia ran out to an early lead over Providence Tuesday and never looked back, ultimately earning a 58-40 victory in a defensive showcase. The Cavaliers — who frustrated the Friars (5-1) in the first half with the Pack-Line defense — held Providence to its lowest scoring total of the season by a margin of 23 points.
After the Friars jumped out to a 7-4 lead, a 13-0 Virginia run — having begun with Franklin’s first of two early three-pointers — gave Bennett’s team some breathing room in a low-scoring half. Meanwhile, Providence entered a dry spell on the offensive end after witnessing 6:35 pass without a field goal.
With Virginia’s advantage at 21-11 with 4:59 to go, the Cavaliers continued to surge in a half with limited offensive opportunities for both teams. Virginia — having managed to contain the Friars’ leading scorer in graduate center Nate Watson — keyed in on the opposing wings and the three-point arc in order to eliminate any possibility of a Friar run. Providence finished the half shooting 6-23 from the field and 1-9 from the three-point arc in a sloppy performance from an undefeated Big East team.
Franklin tallied all of his 14 points in the first half, as the transfer from Indiana converted four of his six three-point attempts in another impressive shooting performance. With Franklin providing some firepower from the wings, the Cavaliers smothered the Friars with their signature Pack-Line defense and forced several shot-clock violations in the first half. A return to the style of play that Bennett has always emphasized came into the forefront with this dominant defensive stretch.
Virginia seemed to be operating in cruise control in the beginning of the second half after establishing a 42-28 lead with 12:58 to play. However, eight unanswered points from the Friars completely shifted the momentum to the opponent after some hustle plays and a massive three-pointer from junior guard Brycen Goodine. With the score standing at 42-36, the Cavaliers answered with a five-point run of their own after an emphatic jumper and free throw from Gardner.
After somewhat of a scare from the Friars, Virginia responded accordingly and stymied any possibility of a Providence comeback. Clark notched four consecutive points in the last two minutes as the Cavaliers finished with a statement win in the 2021 Legends Classic, earning their seventh November tournament championship in the past eight years.
“I think we are [a work in progress] at the defensive end,” Bennett said. “I think we are [a work in progress] at the offensive end, but we're finding some things that just guys get used to playing different teams, different guards in different ways. And we're getting better.”
The defensive improvements from Bennett’s roster were on full display in a dismantling of a capable Providence offense. Shedrick — who recorded five rejections in his fourth straight multi-block game — proved that he can anchor the Pack-Line in the frontcourt despite some offensive shortcomings. Franklin, Clark and sophomore guard Reece Beekman made life miserable for the Friars’ wings and contributed to their woeful 13.6 percent clip from three-point range.
Virginia also proved that it could score in a variety of different ways, with Gardner scoring most of his game-high 21 points in the paint. Gardner — the MVP of the Legends Classic — notched his 33rd career double-double after pulling down 13 rebounds in the win. The Cavaliers completed 50 percent of their three-point attempts, and they displayed an uber-efficient offense after only attempting 12 shots from behind the arc. Franklin and Gardner — the two notable transfers for this new-look Cavalier team — have established themselves as the clear-cut scorers for a roster that requires some offensive energy at times.
“Honestly, that’s one of the best defensive efforts I’ve seen in years,” said Providence Coach Ed Cooley.
Cooley’s team sputtered in the first half and could not completely right the ship despite a solid run in the second half, as their poor shooting exacerbated a poor night all around. Watson — having entered the game averaging 18.6 points per game — recorded a season-low after only mustering eight in the loss. Virginia’s ability to shut Watson down reflected the strength of the Pack-Line in the frontcourt, with double teams and frequent on-ball pressure confusing opponents near the basket.
Despite tallying 15 turnovers as opposed to Providence’s eight, Virginia played well enough on both sides of the ball to run away with a victory in their tournament clincher. Perhaps this team — having given Cavalier fans reason to worry early in the season — has gelled faster than expected. Franklin and Gardner will continue to provide scoring as the “go-to-guys” while the defense will only improve as time progresses.
Virginia basketball returned to Charlottesville Friday to take on Lehigh in another non-conference matchup.