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Virginia survives its first NIT game against Mississippi State 60-57

Senior forward Jayden Gardner scored 14 points in the second half to help the Cavaliers move on

<p>Senior forward Jayden Gardner and sophomore guard Reece Beekman were the stars of the show, combining for half of Virginia's points.</p>

Senior forward Jayden Gardner and sophomore guard Reece Beekman were the stars of the show, combining for half of Virginia's points.

In their first National Invitation Tournament appearance since the 2013 season, Virginia men’s basketball played host to Mississippi State in the first round of the postseason tournament. Despite a scare late into the second half, the Cavaliers (20-13, 12-8 ACC) came out victorious in a game of runs, having survived a last-second three-point attempt from the Bulldogs (18-16, 8-10 SEC) that would have forced overtime. 

This was the third all-time meeting between the two schools and Virginia’s second SEC matchup of the year — the first came against Georgia in non-conference play. Senior forward Jayden Gardner led Virginia in scoring once again with 16 points in the win.

After winning the tip, senior forward Jayden Gardner opened up the scoring with a mid-range jumper — a staple of the East Carolina transfer’s game this year. Mississippi State started off sloppily, committing two backcourt violations in the span of two minutes. Sophomore guard Reece Beekman was the primary cause of the Bulldogs’ carelessness, neutralizing any guard he faced all game defensively. 

The player to watch on Mississippi State — junior guard Iverson Molinar — fired back at Beekman with a three-point play to even the score at 4-4. Junior center Francisco Caffaro — not the usual scoring suspect for the Cavaliers — put in two early putbacks in addition to a thunderous block en route to an 8-4 Cavalier lead at the first media timeout. 

Mississippi State came out of the break with yet another backcourt violation, as senior guard Kody Stattmann cashed in a layup on the other end. Both teams struggled to score in the ensuing minutes until a foul on senior guard Kihei Clark’s attempted three-pointer resulted in a 17-10 advantage for Virginia. After two free throws from Beekman, Virginia raced out to its largest lead of the night at 23-14 with under five minutes to play in the half. Beekman fed Caffaro for the dunk and Virginia once again enjoyed a nine-point lead, as the Cavaliers headed into halftime several minutes later with a 27-19 lead over the Bulldogs.

Beekman and Caffaro both scored 10 and eight points apiece for Virginia, while Stattman contributed four of his own after back-to-back layups. The Cavaliers forced nine turnovers from Mississippi State — including the three backcourt violations — and kept their opponent from firing from three-point range. In addition, Beekman broke the single-season school steals record, something he reflected on in his postgame press conference.

“From the start when I came here to now, I feel like my defense has grown a lot, and I’ve learned a lot from Kihei [Clark],” Beekman said. “It’s a great feeling, but I’ve got to just keep playing.”

At the start of the second half, the Bulldogs struck first with seven unanswered points to trim the Cavalier lead to one after only two minutes of play. However, junior guard Armaan Franklin — who has struggled to shoot all season — temporarily stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer, while Beekman converted a mid-range jumper to push the lead back out to four. Molinar — the catalyst for this fast-paced Bulldog offense — answered with two of his six second-half points to tie the ball game at 32 with 16:08 to play. The two teams would then trade buckets, with Gardner knocking down another jumper to put Virginia up 38-36. 

Gardner once again found the soft spot in the defense to bring the advantage to four with under 12 minutes to go and continued his strong second-half start with a jumper to give Virginia a 42-36 lead. Graduate student forward Garrison Brooks — a player Virginia is familiar with due to his previous stint at North Carolina — quieted the John Paul Jones Arena crowd with a long jumper, yet the Cavaliers still possessed some momentum after the timeout. Freshman guard Taine Murray — who has played minimal minutes since his breakout game against Iowa — scored a layup to give Virginia a 46-38 lead and a little breathing room. 

Mississippi State sophomore guard Andersson Garcia cashed in a three-pointer, but Clark and sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick connected on an alley-oop over the head of a Bulldog defender to keep the opponent at bay. Gardner — like he has done so many times — found his go-to spot by the baseline for a jumper to push the Virginia advantage to 50-44 with 5:54 remaining.

Brooks once again ate into the Cavaliers’ momentum with a big three-pointer, but Gardner would respond with another long two-point jumper, giving him 14 points for the second half after only two in the first 20 minutes. 

Brooks — who was quiet in the first half — cashed in yet another three-pointer as the lead dwindled to two with under four minutes, and then made his third of the half to answer a layup from Beekman. However, Franklin made another three-pointer to stop the Bulldog run and give the Cavaliers a four-point cushion at the 2:00 mark.

A critical technical foul on Brooks saw Clark make just one of two free throws, but the Cavaliers retained possession. After two more free throws from Beekman, Mississippi State junior forward Tolu Smith sank a jumper to narrow the lead to five with 19 seconds to play. 

Gardner would go to the line with 4.9 seconds left and a three-point Cavalier advantage, yet missed both as Clark fouled Molinar before he could launch a last-second three-point attempt. A Molinar miss at the buzzer would give Virginia a hard-earned 60-57 home victory. Coach Tony Bennett was proud of how his team fought in the less-than-ideal situation.

“No, it's not the NCAA tournament, but it's still the NIT,” Bennett said. “To me, I hope they're chomping at the bit to continue on and get as ready as we can for our next game.”

With the win, Virginia moves on to the second round of the NIT, with North Texas awaiting the Cavaliers at an unnamed location Sunday at 6 p.m.


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