After both beating top-10 teams Friday night, No. 16 Virginia and No. 19 Illinois squared off Sunday afternoon in the championship game of the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas, Nev. with the Cavaliers (4-0, 0-0 ACC) emerging victorious 70-61 thanks to a late-game surge. The win for Virginia caps off an emotional week for the team and the University after three football players — junior wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., junior linebacker D’Sean Perry and junior wide receiver Devin Chandler — were fatally shot the night of Nov. 13.
“When you have a momentary celebration like this it enables you to enjoy it,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “It seems to matter, but in the big picture it doesn’t. What matters are the things that have been brought front and center.”
Both teams came into the game off of explosive shooting performances in their Friday night victories. The Cavaliers were led past No. 5 Baylor by senior guard Armaan Franklin’s 26-point performance on 7-12 shooting while the Fighting Illini (4-1, 0-0 Big 10) saw senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. shoot 8-9 from three-point range en route to a 29-point performance.
The game started quickly, with both teams settling in to the other’s playing style. Graduate student guard Kihei Clark scored the first seven points for Virginia, hitting a three and two athletic layups.
With five minutes gone in the first half, the Cavaliers led 10-7 over the Fighting Illini. The size of Illinois’ players, with four of their starting lineup at 6-foot-6 or taller, appeared to not be too much of a problem for Virginia early.
The Cavalier defense held Illinois to 4-14 shooting with 11:37 left in the first half. However, a three-point shot from sophomore guard RJ Melendez gave Illinois a 12-11 lead. The shot ignited the Illinois crowd, who traveled en masse despite the game being played at a neutral site in Las Vegas.
It seemed like every time either team gained any ounce of momentum, the other team turned around and fought right back. After Clark hit a three-pointer to make it 16-14 Virginia, Illinois freshman guard Jayden Epps drove to the basket to tie the game.
Both offenses picked up towards the end of the first half. Illinois made a few key passing plays and cuts that energized their fans, yet the Cavaliers responded well. Graduate student forward Jayden Gardner and Clark both drew and-one driving layups to keep the game extremely tight.
Shannon Jr. came out of his shell towards the end of the half, hitting an arcing three-pointer on offense for Illinois, then taking a charge right after from junior guard Reece Beekman.
At the half, Illinois had a two-point edge over Virginia with a score of 31-29. Both Epps and Melendez led the Fighting Illini with eight points while Clark had 10 for Virginia and Gardner added seven. Both defenses were pivotal in the first half as Illinois held Virginia to 37 percent shooting but only shot 40 percent from the field themselves. The difference maker in the second half looked like it would be who could make clutch shots and control the pace of play.
Virginia started the second half with a quick 6-0 run. It was capped off by a steal by Beekman which eventually led to a junior forward Kadin Shedrick dunk in transition to make the score 35-31 in favor of the Cavaliers. Shedrick scored seven of Virginia’s first nine points to start the second half.
The Illinois offense’s ball movement began to confuse Virginia, as on back-to-back possessions players were left wide open for the Fighting Illini. Just as Illinois tied the game, Beekman nailed a three-pointer to take back the lead for the Cavaliers and make it 41-38, but the offenses remained slow.
However, both teams picked the offense up with under 10 minutes to go in the game. Franklin responded to a Fighting Illini layup with a tough layup and long-range two pointer, but Epps fired back to keep Illinois within three points.
With six minutes remaining, every possession felt pivotal for both Illinois and Virginia and the two teams looked like they were playing in late March, not late November. Trailing by three coming out of a media timeout, Illinois sophomore forward Dain Dainja fought for two key offensive rebounds to keep the possession alive, which ultimately saw Epps drain a three to tie the game at 53.
After Illinois took the lead at 58-56 with 3:42 left, the Fighting Illini would not score until 11 seconds remaining.
The Virginia defense shut down the Illinois offense while going on a 13-0 run themselves. The key for the Cavaliers was forcing difficult shots for the Fighting Illini down the stretch while making several free throws. For the game, Illinois shot 4-9 from the free throw line while Virginia shot a whopping 25-32, attempting 23 more free throws than the Fighting Illini.
Highlights from the 13-0 run included a Beekman drive to the basket after a missed Illinois three-pointer as he scored through contact by Shannon Jr. to make it 62-58. Additionally, Franklin took a charge with under a minute remaining to essentially seal the game.
It felt like a vintage, defensively controlled Bennett win and showcased the duality of this Virginia team. While shooting just 5-17 from three after shooting lights out in previous games, the defense flexed its muscles on Sunday and demonstrated just how many different ways this Virginia team can win.
Clark and Gardner both tallied 12 points while Franklin led the Cavaliers with 17 points. Vander Plas was also key for the Cavaliers on the boards as he grabbed 10 rebounds.
For Illinois, Epps scored 14 points while junior forward Coleman Hawkins added 10. While the box score doesn’t suggest much of a shooting difference between the two teams, Virginia was able to lock up defensively when it mattered most with a few minutes left in the game as the Cavaliers forced four missed shots and three turnovers by Illinois.
Beekman was named the tournament MVP after his 10 point, 10 assist double-double against Baylor and a 17 point, four rebound game against Illinois.
The Cavaliers return home and will face Maryland Eastern Shore on Friday at 6 p.m. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network as well as Virginia Sports Radio Network.