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Virginia basketball falls short 69-65 despite a late comeback attempt against Notre Dame

A big game from senior forward Jayden Gardner couldn’t lead the Cavaliers to a road win

After a promising win against Louisville, the Virginia men’s basketball traveled to South Bend to take on Notre Dame, a team that has vastly exceeded expectations this year. The Fighting Irish (14-4, 7-2 ACC) gained control late into the first half and never saw the Cavaliers (12-9, 6-5 ACC) make a comeback until the very end of the game, as the lead shrunk to as few as two points. 

Senior forward Jayden Gardner and junior center Francisco Caffaro — who both shined in the frontcourt and recorded double-doubles — kept the Cavaliers in striking distance throughout, despite the hot shooting from Notre Dame. However, the inconsistencies on both ends doomed Virginia.

The first five minutes featured the Blake Wesley show for the Fighting Irish, as the highly touted freshman guard recorded two three-pointers en route to scoring his team’s first eight points. The Cavaliers — who seemed to rely more on the frontcourt — fell behind 17-12 after senior guard Prentiss Hubb cashed in a three to stretch the lead. However, Virginia would claw back to tie the contest at 19-19 as the Cavaliers had a rare stretch of seven unanswered points to neutralize the Notre Dame run.

Unfortunately for Virginia fans, the favor was returned by the Fighting Irish with a scoring drought that the Cavaliers were all too familiar with. Notre Dame answered the call with seven unanswered points of their own to break, and the two teams later traded baskets towards the end of the half. The Cavaliers — without the normally consistent play of senior guard Kihei Clark — instead relied heavily on Gardner as they headed into halftime down 34-27. 

As the second half began, Virginia failed to establish any serious momentum and allowed the Fighting Irish to extend their advantage to 45-35 with just under 15 minutes to play. Notre Dame was able to take advantage of the pack-line defense by consistently shooting well from beyond the arc, and junior guard Dane Goodwin knocked down two consecutive baskets to give his team a fifteen point lead, the Fighting Irish’s largest of the night. Gardner once again did his best to level the outcome by notching eight points early into the half, but it became increasingly clear that he would not be able to do it on his own.

Slowly but surely, though, the Cavaliers crept back into the ballgame. At the 8:18 mark, Clark drained his second free throw to bring the lead back to seven. However, Notre Dame kept the visitors at bay through their strong frontcourt play, holding onto a 59-53 with under three minutes to go. Another three from Goodwin put the Fighting Irish up by nine, but Virginia responded with eight late points from Clark to cut the deficit to two — the smallest since the first half. Hubb was fouled by Clark on a three-point shot on the next possession, however, and traveled to the free throw line to calmly extend the advantage to four. With little to no time to work with, the Cavaliers could only muster an unlikely three-point attempt from junior guard Armaan Franklin before they fell to the Fighting Irish on the road. 

“Even against their zone we got some decent looks,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “We started attacking, at times we were a little tentative, but I thought we did a good job on the offensive glass.” 

Notre Dame was simply the more efficient team in a game that saw the Cavaliers attempt twelve more field goals and nine fewer three-pointers. Despite a strong outing from Caffaro and Gardner, Clark caught fire too late and could not complete his miraculous comeback attempt in the hostile environment. Clark and his fellow guards — sophomore Reece Beekman and Franklin — were a combined 3 of 13 from behind the arc in a subpar shooting performance. 

An encouraging part of the game for Virginia fans should be the perseverance and grittiness of this team. Despite being down big in the second half and witnessing shot after shot fall for the Fighting Irish, the Cavaliers never backed down in Purcell Pavilion, and although they did not ultimately come home with a victory, Virginia showed some of the best fight it had all season. Even more promising is the development of Caffaro, a former sixth to seventh option who now plays over 25 minutes per game and has shown an offensive spark. Caffaro and Gardner — Virginia’s leading scorer with 22 points — will be a dynamic duo to watch as ACC play winds down.

Returning to John Paul Jones Arena, the Cavaliers will have a quick turnaround against Boston College (8-11, 3-6 ACC) on Tuesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m., and the game will be televised on ACC Network.