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Virginia basketball bounces back from Saturday’s loss with a 64-52 win over Louisville

The Cavaliers never trailed in a key victory to stay over .500 in the ACC

<p>Kihei Clark rode a hot start and strong defense to become the game's most important player.</p>

Kihei Clark rode a hot start and strong defense to become the game's most important player.

In a must-win game for both teams’ NCAA tournament hopes, Virginia faced off with Louisville Monday night in Charlottesville, and the team did not disappoint a raucous home crowd. After the best start to a game of the season for the Cavaliers (12-8, 6-4 ACC), Virginia was able to keep the Cardinals (11-9, 5-5 ACC) at arm’s length for the entire second half to come away with a 64-52 victory, moving the team’s record after losses to 8-0 on the season.

In a balanced scoring effort, four Cavaliers hit double digits in the box score, led by senior guard Kihei Clark’s 15 points. In addition, while not as much of a factor in the scoring column, sophomore guard Reece Beekman set a career high with 11 assists. Especially after the team’s dismal performance against NC State on Saturday, Coach Tony Bennett was extremely happy with how his guards played in particular, both defensively and on the offensive end.

“I thought Kihei and Reece set the tone defensively for us tonight,” Bennett said. “[Reece] is continuing to improve, and he is only a year and half in.”

After winning the tip, Virginia got off to a quick start, making its first four field goals to take an 11-3 lead into the first media timeout. On the other end of the court, Louisville — although the Cardinals got good shots — could not get nearly anything to fall. It was about as perfect a start as the Cavaliers could have hoped for, especially with Clark starting off well offensively.

The night got even better for Virginia fans, as the team extended its lead to 19-5 before Louisville coach Chris Mack was forced to call a timeout to regroup. The shots that rimmed out all season were finally falling, and the defense was night and day compared to Saturday’s NC State game. 

The lead would stretch to as large as 19 before a series of empty possessions stopped Virginia’s incendiary start to the first half. Even as the Cavaliers cooled off offensively, stout defense kept the Cardinals well out of reach. Louisville would shoot just 35 percent from the field in the first half and turned the ball over five times through the first 20 minutes of play. 

With 5:56 to go in the opening segment of the game, the Cardinals finally reached double digits on the scoreboard, cutting the deficit to 27-11. The three-pointer by senior guard Noah Locke ended a nearly five-minute scoring drought for Louisville, and while they chipped into the lead towards intermission, Virginia maintained a comfortable lead throughout the half. With Beekman’s layup, every Cavalier that saw the floor scored, and Virginia took a 35-23 lead into the locker room. Although the Cavaliers were not perfect, Bennett raved about his team’s play, especially in the first half.

“There was some good Virginia basketball out there, I thought,” Bennett said. “Hard offense, tough defense, didn’t give up easy looks and for the most part [they] were connecting.”

The Cardinals started off the second half scoring with a layup by graduate transfer guard Jarrod West, and after an abysmal half for Louisville offensively, the Cardinal offense exploded to start, cutting the lead to single digits for the first time since early in the first half. Four early turnovers by Virginia allowed its lead to dwindle all the way to four points, but a quick offensive surge pushed the score back to 49-41 with 10:26 remaining.

The teams would each then go on a bit of a scoring drought, only trading three-pointers to keep the margin at eight with just over seven minutes to play. Although the Cavaliers made shots from behind the arc when they needed to, it was yet another struggle to score from three for Virginia, going just 5-16 on the night. Louisville, on the other hand, made a couple prayers in the second half, which were really the only shots keeping the Cardinals in the game. After a monstrous dunk from sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick, however, Louisville could not answer from beyond the arc, and the visiting team would never get closer than seven points for the rest of the game.

Although they gave up a few points in the final four minutes of the contest, Virginia scored when they needed to to keep the game out of reach for the Cardinals — a skill the Cavaliers have struggled with all season. A bucket by Franklin plus a foul with 1:29 left sealed it for Virginia, and John Paul Jones celebrated a 64-52 victory for the Cavaliers.

Virginia will be back on the road for its next game, traveling to South Bend, Ind. to take on Notre Dame next Saturday. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m., and the game will be televised on ACC Network.