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Virginia basketball’s tournament hopes stay alive with crucial 74-71 victory against Miami

Despite a sloppy start, the Cavaliers rebounded with a massive run in the second half to keep the game away from the Hurricanes.

<p>Senior forward Jayden Gardner led all scorers in the game with 23 points.</p>

Senior forward Jayden Gardner led all scorers in the game with 23 points.

Following a disappointing outcome against Virginia Tech, Virginia embarked on another road trip Saturday, hoping to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. The Cavaliers (17-10, 11-6 ACC) struggled towards the end of the first half against Miami, yet completely turned the corner in the last 20 minutes of play to give themselves a hard-earned victory over the Hurricanes (19-8, 11-5 ACC). Senior forward Jayden Gardner — last week’s ACC Player of the Week — once again shined for the Cavaliers, recording 23 points on another efficient night around the rim. 

Miami raced out to an early 12-4 lead off of a seven-point run, but the Cavaliers slowly crept back into the contest. Junior guard Armaan Franklin poured in five consecutive points to narrow the advantage to 15-14, showcasing some of that three-point shooting ability that has been sporadic throughout this season. Free throws — an unusual way to climb back into a game, given the Cavaliers’ inability to get to the line at times — benefited Virginia immensely and led to a tie game at 23-23 with 10:53 left in the half. 

With 5:06 remaining, Gardner cashed in a jumper from senior guard Kihei Clark to give the Cavaliers the lead and some momentum. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes launched a brutal nine-point run to end the half, going into the locker room with a seemingly safe 38-30 advantage over Virginia despite the back-and-forth play of the first 20 minutes. A disastrous end to the half left the Cavaliers facing an uphill battle, which is not the ideal scenario for a team that struggles to score at times.

The second half brought forth another gritty effort from the Cavaliers. Down by as many as 10 to start the second half, Virginia was able to claw back behind the three-point shooting of Clark and senior guard Kody Stattman. After a dunk from Stattman and a jumper from Gardner, Virginia tied the game at 42-42 just minutes after being down double digits. Clark — who had only recorded three points in the first half — started to hit his stride, making another three-pointer to give the Cavaliers a one-point lead with 15:02 remaining in the game. Coach Tony Bennett was particularly pleased with the team’s second half performance in his postgame press conference.

“In the second [half], we said ‘alright, we didn’t finish the first half well, let’s come out, get good quality looks, and make them earn it.,’” Bennett said. “And sure enough, a couple turnovers, a couple breakdowns defensively – and there we were.”

After another couple minutes of strong gameplay, Virginia enjoyed a nine-point lead, having completely flipped the script in the second half after a few nice scoring runs. Miami — having taken a timeout after the offensive spurt from the Cavaliers — quickly responded with seven unanswered points to bring the Virginia lead down to two. Luckily for Virginia, however, the duo of Clark and Gardner kept the Hurricanes at bay, stretching the advantage back to six with 3:49 remaining. From that point on, Miami would not seriously challenge the Cavaliers, despite the final score showing only a three-point margin of victory. The 74-71 victory showed the perseverance Virginia fans had hoped for, especially coming off a disappointing loss against their rivals. 

Clark hit a career milestone during the game, scoring his 1000th career point for the Cavaliers. Although he didn’t lead the game in scoring — that honor goes to Gardner, who had 23 points — Virginia needed every one of the senior guard’s shots to go in tonight in a tough road environment. Stattman also provided a boost, showing an ability to drive to the basket that has sometimes been lacking this season. Despite the 17-10 record and a middle of the pack standing in the ACC, the Cavaliers continue to mesh as a unit thanks to Bennett’s leadership.

“[Clark] had big shots, a big finish,” Bennett said. “The bounce back Kihei had was good, and we needed it all.”

Next on tap for Virginia is a rematch against Duke at home. After one of the most remarkable shots in Virginia basketball history courtesy of sophomore guard Reece Beekman, the Blue Devils will be seeking revenge in potentially the last matchup between Bennett and Duke’s Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, and the game will be televised on ESPN. 

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