Virginia basketball suffered its second straight home loss on a wild sequence of events, as freshman guard Matthew Cleveland hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give Florida State a dramatic 64-63 victory in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers (17-12, 11-8 ACC) led by as many as 11 in the second half, but a furious comeback by the Seminoles (15-13, 8-10 ACC) negated any opportunity for Virginia to bounce back from the loss against Duke on Wednesday. Senior forward Jayden Gardner led all scorers with 21 points, but his efforts simply were not enough to pull out the win in the Cavaliers’ last home game of the season.
Before tip-off a Senior Day ceremony was held to recognize the graduating Cavaliers — senior guard Kihei Clark, senior guard Kody Stattman, senior forward Jayden Nixon, and fourth-year managers Chris McGahren and Shane Nelson were all given the spotlight in what could be their last times suiting up for Virginia at home. Despite the loss, Coach Tony Bennett took the time to compliment his outgoing players in his postgame press conference.
“It starts with the managers, who are unbelievable in terms of their commitment to our program,” Bennett said. “And Kihei’s story is really special, when you think about where he came from and all he’s accomplished. And again, this one will sting for him on senior night, but you know, it’s part of this game.”
After winning the tip, Florida State wasted little time getting started, scoring on its first possession. After that, though, Virginia was able to slow the pace to the style it wanted to play, and after a slow start offensively, the Cavaliers were able to build out to a 9-4 lead with 14:36 remaining in the first half.
Virginia would continue its stifling defense throughout the middle of the half. Even though the Seminoles made some tough shots, the perimeter pressure — particularly by Clark and sophomore guard Reece Beekman — made it extremely hard for Florida State’s backcourt to run its offense. Despite that fact, however, the game remained close, with the Cavaliers clinging to a 17-16 advantage with 7:12 left.
The teams would then trade buckets over the span of a few possessions, but a three-pointer by senior forward Harrison Prieto — his third straight possession scoring on Virginia — caused Bennett to call timeout with 3:30 remaining in the half and the score locked at 25. The early advantage the Cavaliers had built up was now gone, but there was still time left in the half for Virginia to go into the locker room feeling good.
The home team was able to rebuild the lead they were hoping for in the final minutes of the period, as Virginia took a 34-29 lead going into halftime. The Cavaliers’ frontcourt was responsible for the bulk of the scoring in the first half, with Gardner leading both teams with 14 points. While Clark’s outstanding performance against Duke was extremely riveting, the first half against the Seminoles showcased a much more balanced, sustainable offense.
The teams again traded buckets to start the second half before Beekman threw down a ferocious dunk to make the score 38-33. The Cavaliers — not normally known for second chance points — took advantage of four offensive rebounds in as many minutes to hold their five-point advantage as the teams went to a media timeout with 15:56 left in the game.
After the timeout, junior guard Armaan Franklin extended Virginia’s lead with a deep three-pointer, and nearly made John Paul Jones Arena explode with another shot that just rimmed out. On the other end, the Cavaliers’ stifling defense was back to its early form, with only a couple questionable calls by the referees resulting in points for Florida State. After a beautiful move by Clark to dump it off to junior forward Kadin Shedrick for a dunk and an ensuing turnover by the Seminoles, Florida State called a timeout with 10:45 left and Virginia holding its largest lead of the game at 48-37.
The Seminoles would then proceed to go on a run to cut the lead to just four, but a free throw by Franklin would stop the bleeding for Virginia. An old-fashioned three-point play for Clark would push the lead 52-44 with 5:38 remaining in the contest.
The game was not over, however, as Florida State stormed back after the final media timeout due to a combination of turnovers and poor shooting on Virginia’s part. Cleveland would convert a three-point play of his own with 45 seconds left to cut the deficit to just one, and Clark would turn it over on the ensuing possession. Just when it looked like the Seminoles would have an opportunity to take the lead on a fast break, though, Stattman made arguably his biggest play of the night by stealing the ball away and forcing the visiting team to foul Franklin with 15 seconds left.
Franklin would make just one out of two shots from the stripe, allowing Cleveland to tie the game with a layup. Down to just six seconds, Virginia had one final opportunity to win the game, and who better to redeem himself than Franklin, who nailed a pull-up jumper to send the stadium into a frenzy. Despite what seemed to be a perfect ending to senior day, it was not meant to be for the Cavaliers, as Cleveland once again scored, this time on a last-second three-pointer to win the game 64-63 for Florida State.
“I thought the turnovers and the ability to not get a stop cost us dearly,” Bennett said of the ending sequence. “We’ve been close, on the edge in a lot of games, and we’ve won some close ones, but you can’t play with fire like that.”
Barring a miracle ACC Tournament run to a championship and an auto-bid, this loss likely killed any remaining chance for Virginia to make the NCAA Tournament. Despite the disappointing result of the game — and the season — it should be commended that the Cavaliers were in this position to begin with, given the way the season started. Although the season will more than likely result in Virginia missing the Big Dance for the first time in nine years, Bennett still did an excellent job coaching the team this season through its ups and downs, and the seniors on the team — especially Clark, but also Stattman and Nixon — will always have the 2019 national championship to remember.
The season finale for Virginia will take place next Saturday on the road against Louisville. Tip-off is set for noon, and the game will be televised on ESPN2.