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Virginia men's basketball struggles on the road in 67-47 loss at No. 15 Houston

The combination of hot shooting and tenacious defense from the Cougars was simply too much for the Cavaliers, who turned the ball over twelve times in only the first half

<p>Senior guard Kihei Clark scored eight points but committed four turnovers in the loss to Houston Tuesday night.</p>

Senior guard Kihei Clark scored eight points but committed four turnovers in the loss to Houston Tuesday night.

Virginia men’s basketball dropped its second game of the season, falling 67-47 on the road against No. 15 Houston. The Cavaliers (1-2) simply could not keep pace with the tenacious Cougars (3-0), who put on a defensive clinic as Coach Tony Bennett’s team struggled offensively with 17 turnovers in the loss. 

Houston came out firing in the opening moments of the first half, establishing an early 8-0 lead off of two three-pointers. Exhibiting their suffocating defense, the Cougars stretched their advantage to 20-6 after nearly seven minutes of play. Junior guard Marcus Sasser — having come into the game averaging 25.5 points per game — tallied nine points as Houston enjoyed a 14-point lead. 

On the offensive side of the ball, Virginia could not properly execute its blocker-mover style of play and struggled to find open shots from the wings. The Cougars frequently double-teamed on defense in the paint as well, holding the Cavaliers’ leading scorer — senior forward Jayden Gardner — to only two points in the first half. Senior guard Kihei Clark did notch a first-half team-high eight points, yet it wouldn’t be nearly enough to close the gap.

With the Cavaliers only being able to close the quick 14-point deficit to eight points, the Cougars surged to a 36-23 advantage in a rough first half for Virginia. A key takeaway appeared in Houston’s ability to convert off a whopping 12 Cavalier turnovers, as Sasser and company scored 14 points on the heels of their opponent’s mistakes. Virginia’s inability to slow the game down to their liking ultimately led to the Cougars taking advantage of fast break opportunities — a part of the game not often given to Bennett’s opponents. 

More of the same ensued for the Cavaliers in the second half, as Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson and his Cougars surged to a 43-25 lead after five quick points from senior guard Kyler Edwards. A transfer from Texas Tech — Edwards may have been looking for revenge after falling to Virginia in the 2019 National Championship game. 

After another three-pointer from Edwards, the Cougars operated on cruise control en route to a 20-point advantage with 10:41 to play. Virginia failed to gather any offensive momentum against the stingy Houston defense, with junior guard Armaan Franklin’s 11 second-half points serving as the only bright spot in a disappointing outing. Coach Bennett opened the bench in the waning minutes of the game, featuring twelve out of a possible 13 players on the roster as the Cavaliers admitted their defeat.

Despite the loss, the Cavaliers benefited from the defensive play of sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick and the offensive potential of senior guard Kody Stattman — the former notched three blocks while the latter cashed in two of three attempts from behind the three-point arc. Sophomore guard Reece Beekman once again proved that he is developing into an impressive on-ball threat, having held his own in a tough matchup against Sasser. 

“We’ve got a ways to go, and I think it’s important for us to be in this setting,” Bennett said. “Maybe we’ll play some teams that are as good defensively. I don’t know if we’ll play any better than this.”

The turnovers on offense ended any chance of Virginia making a run in either half, as the pressure from Houston highlighted Beekman and Clark’s occasional shakiness when faced with a high-octane defense. The Cavaliers — having gone four for 19 from the three-point line — could not counter the Cougars’ impressive shooting night, who converted eleven of their twenty three-point attempts. The Pack-Line’s Achilles heel once again reared its ugly head, with both Navy and Houston avoiding the interior and relying on their guards to expose the Cavaliers’ defense from behind the arc. 

Virginia — now 1-2 in the early goings of non-conference play — will have to find their “go-to-guy” to make plays when it counts. Gardner — who struggled with only four points in the loss — must take some chances from the mid-range when the post is clogged. Franklin — who has suddenly shined with 32 points over the Cavaliers’ past two games — may have to shoulder the responsibility of serving as the team’s primary shooter, even if Stattman and Clark have impressed with their three-point success. 

The dogfight that fans envisioned came to fruition in the defensive battle between two of 2020’s best. Coach Sampson did not disappoint in frustrating the Cavalier offense and showcasing his team’s incredible athleticism, as the Cougars seemed to dominate their opponent in every aspect of the game. This will hopefully be a learning experience for a new Virginia roster — one which resembles the 69-40 defeat at Purdue in 2019 or the 98-75 blowout versus Gonzaga in 2020. Most rosters under Bennett have clawed their way back from early losses, and time will tell if this team can rebound from a less than stellar start to the season.

The Cavaliers now turn their attention to the struggling Coppin State Eagles (0-5) in a non-conference game at John Paul Jones Arena. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. on Friday, and the game will be televised on ACC Network Extra.