Playing each other for the second time in just five days, Virginia took on Louisville in the second round of the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. Despite starting just 2-17 from the field, the Cavaliers (19-12, 12-8 ACC) were able to grind through their offensive struggles to defeat the Cardinals (13-19, 6-14 ACC) for the third time this season.
Senior forward Jayden Gardner led the team with 17 points, including the last two free throws of the game to seal the victory for Virginia. With the win, the Cavaliers keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, and will face a quick turnaround to take on North Carolina Thursday.
Similar to the game played Saturday, each team started off cold before a bucket by Louisville’s junior forward Sydney Curry opened the scoring. Virginia would quickly equalize, with junior center Francisco Caffaro scoring inside, but two turnovers and 1-8 shooting to start from the Cavaliers gave the Cardinals a 4-2 advantage at the first media timeout.
While Virginia remained ice cold to start, Louisville was able to create some momentum with five quick fast break points to stretch the lead to five with eight minutes gone in the game. The Cavaliers’ lone saving grace was their offensive rebounding, but being aggressive on the glass can only do so much when a team is not making shots. Gardner finally broke a nearly six-minute scoring drought with a mid-range jumper, but the Cardinals were able to maintain a 13-7 lead with 8:07 remaining in the first half.
A shot-clock violation to send the teams to commercial may have inspired the Cavaliers on the other side of the ball, as shots finally started falling to help cut the lead to three with 4:49 left. Unfortunately, Louisville was able to just keep the Cavaliers at bay throughout the end of the half, with 16 points in the paint helping the Cardinals take a 24-20 lead into the locker room. A bad call to give Gardner two fouls left Virginia unhappy, but shooting 33 percent in a half was not ideal for the Cavaliers.
Virginia started off the scoring in the second half with a three-point play from sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick, and a jumper by Gardner quickly gave the Cavaliers their first lead of the night. Sophomore guard Reece Beekman would extend the lead to three before a shot by Louisville to open its scoring lead to a 27-27 tie at the under-16 media timeout.
The teams would then trade buckets throughout the next few minutes of game time, with neither squad able to gain more than a two-point lead and break away. An offensive foul on the Cardinals — their tenth turnover of the game — brought the game to a timeout with 7:26 left in the game and the score tied at 37. Gardner and senior guard Kihei Clark were carrying the Virginia scoring load, with each having scored 11 points up to this point in the game. Coach Tony Bennett was very complimentary of his two seniors — and leading scorers — in his postgame press conference.
“I thought Jayden and Kihei made some tough, whether it was off the ball screen and tough mid-range shots and Jayden [made] some physical plays,” Bennett said. “We needed every point.”
A fantastic layup by Clark seemed to ignite Virginia, but a contested three-pointer by fifth-year forward Malik Williams gave Louisville its first lead since early in the second half with just under five minutes to play. Two free throws by Shedrick put the Cavaliers back in front, however, and Virginia was clinging to a 43-42 lead with 4:23 remaining.
Throughout the final four minutes of the game, the teams traded big shot after big shot. A tough layup by Gardner was answered with a three by senior guard Noah Locke, but Gardner responded yet again with his patented midrange jumper to give Virginia a 47-45 lead with 1:28 remaining.
After a Louisville timeout, Virginia had the chance to push the lead to two possessions, and Beekman took complete advantage, blowing by the defense to give the Cavaliers a four point lead with 40 seconds left.
A traveling violation was called on the Cardinals on the ensuing possession, but Virginia returned the favor with a turnover of its own, allowing Louisville to cut the lead back to two. Gardner was able to ice the game away with two free throws, and although the Cardinals hit a buzzer-beating three, Virginia survived its first test of the ACC Tournament. For Bennett, it ultimately boiled down to getting to play another day.
“We’ve been down this road, and again, it’s about getting a victory,” Bennett said. “I’d take that win over an 85-82 loss.”
Virginia will move on to play North Carolina in the quarterfinals Thursday. Tip-off is set for 9:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN.