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Men's basketball hangs on to defeat Syracuse 74-69 in an offense-friendly contest

Coach Tony Bennett found ways to attack the stingy 2-3 zone defense from the Orange, and senior guard Kihei Clark brought his best game out in a big way

<p>Senior guard Kihei Clark led the way for the Cavaliers with 17 points and eight assists.</p>

Senior guard Kihei Clark led the way for the Cavaliers with 17 points and eight assists.

After an ugly home loss to Clemson, Virginia looked to start the new year on a high note against a familiar foe in Syracuse. The Cavaliers (8-5, 2-1 ACC) — who led for the majority of the game — dissected the Orange’s (7-6, 1-1 ACC) patented zone defense that Coach Jim Boeheim has been engineering for years. With passing at the forefront of the game plan, senior guard Kihei Clark dished out eight assists and notched 17 points – both season-highs - as he weaved through the 2-3 zone. Three other Cavaliers alongside Clark ended the game as double-digit scorers and showcased the offensive parity of a team that has regularly struggled from the field.

Virginia established a rare early lead after a 7-0 run, yet three three-pointers from Syracuse graduate forward Jimmy Boeheim and junior guard Joe Girard III brought the advantage back to 13-9. Junior guard Armaan Franklin - who has often failed to find his groove offensively - tallied eight points over the first ten minutes in a rejuvenated shooting effort. In a classic display of Coach Bennett’s varied personnel, senior guard Kody Stattmann and freshman guard Taine Murray played some key minutes and helped stretch the lead to ten in the waning minutes of the half. 

The Boeheim show was on full display throughout the first half, as brothers Jimmy and senior guard Buddy combined for 18 of their team’s 33 points heading into the intermission. The latter Boeheim — having shocked the world with his shooting performance in the 2021 NCAA Tournament — continued to put pressure on the Pack-Line defense from behind the arc. Thanks to some signature shooting from the brothers, Syracuse swung the momentum in their favor by closing the half on a 20-10 run. 

A game of cat and mouse ensued in the second half, as the Orange established their first lead of the game after a basket from Jimmy Boeheim. With the score now 35-33 in favor of the Orange, Virginia converted a three-pointer and layup to bring the advantage back to three. The Cavaliers maintained their lead as both teams continued to trade points, but after leading 52-47, Virginia fell victim to five consecutive points from the Boeheim brothers to level the contest once again. 

In large part due to some bold three-point conversions from Clark, the Cavaliers began to pull away from the pesky Orange as the clock wound down. A huge three-pointer and layup from the senior guard gave Virginia a 70-64 cushion, one which would hold until the final buzzer sounded. Despite a late scare from Buddy Boeheim, the Cavaliers remained steady in the last minutes and escaped the Carrier Dome with a key ACC win in early January. 

“I thought we kept our composure and kept playing against that zone, and played really good defense for the most part,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “I thought there was some resiliency, and it was a good step for sure.”

A massive step for a team with some unanswered questions, Virginia’s win on the road helped to alleviate concerns about another disappointing outcome in ACC play. Despite some defensive rebounding issues, the Cavaliers dominated the paint with 40-points coming from the frontcourt against the unusual Syracuse defense. Sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick recorded a double-double, while junior forward Jayden Gardner tallied a respectable 15 points in a night that featured more field goal attempts from within the three-point line. 

The Cavaliers shot 52.6% from the field in an impressive outing, showcasing both the shooting of Clark and Franklin while relying on the big men in the paint. Coach Bennett also witnessed his team turn 11 Syracuse turnovers into 14 points, as the Pack-Line seemed to frustrate the Orange’s streaky shooters. Hopefully the Cavaliers will carry over their efforts — both defensive and offensive — into the heart of ACC play. 

Virginia will now travel to South Carolina in a rematch against Clemson (9-4, 1-1 ACC) on Tuesday, Jan. 4. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 P.M., and the game will be televised on ACC Network Extra.