Virginia men’s basketball picked up its most impressive win of the season Friday, defeating Baylor 86-79 to advance to the championship of the Continental Tire Main Event. The No. 16 Cavaliers (3-0, 0-0 ACC) were spurred to a victory over the No. 5 Bears (3-1, 0-0 Big 12) by four double-figure scorers, including a 26-point performance from junior guard Armaan Franklin and 17 points from junior forward Kadin Shedrick.
“I thought Kadin [Shedrick] and Armaan [Franklin] were terrific,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “They really made a difference on both ends of the floor. They’ve been working hard and it’s good to see.”
It was undoubtedly a big win on the court, but it was a bigger win outside of the arena for the Cavaliers. They were able to give fans a moment to celebrate following a difficult week in Charlottesville in the wake of the deaths of football players junior wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., junior linebacker D’Sean Perry and sophomore wide receiver Devin Chandler.
“It meant a lot,” Bennett said. “We know the pain and the grief that so many are going through… You played hard, you played free, whether you won or lost it was okay. You honored the right things.”
Despite the high-scoring final, neither team came out of the gates with much momentum offensively. Possessions were hard to come by, as both sides used most or all of the 30-second shot clock on their respective trips over halfcourt. The slow, methodical style of the game’s initial minutes produced only 20 combined points, and the teams headed for the under-12 media timeout in a 10-10 stalemate.
The contest stayed on the seesaw as the first half progressed, and Virginia found its first lead with 11:05 to play by way of a free throw from graduate student forward Jayden Gardner. Two more conversions from the charity stripe on the next possession lifted the Cavaliers in front 13-10, but a pair of three-pointers on the other end from senior guard Adam Flagler and junior guard LJ Cryer flipped the scoreline back in Baylor’s favor.
As the clock ticked under eight minutes, the offensive floodgates began to open up. Cryer built on his impressive opening minutes with yet another trey, while Shedrick held it down for Virginia in the meantime, pouring in four quick points to keep the Cavaliers within arm's length.
But the Bears simply would not let the Cavaliers move in front again, thanks in large part to the emergence of freshman guard Keyonte George. After being held scoreless for the opening 16 minutes, George made good on two shots from beyond the arc in quick succession, with the second taking Baylor’s advantage to 33-28.
Thankfully for Virginia, Franklin brought his best on Friday. An aggressive approach on the offensive end allowed Franklin a number of high-percentage shots in the paint early on, and he didn’t squander many. Two of his four first-half field goals came in the final 3:17 of the period and helped the Cavaliers trim the lead to three heading to the break.
Baylor connected on seven three-pointers in the first period, all of which came from its lethal trio of Flagler, Cryer and George — a group that would combine for an eventual 10 three-pointers and 54 points for the night. The Cavaliers only attempted two shots from long range in the period, but wouldn’t have felt a need to make extreme adjustments, having owned the opening 20 minutes inside the arc.
When the second half tipped off, Virginia wasted no time making up for their lack of three-point shooting in the first. Franklin stole the show for the Cavaliers, sinking three triples on his way to 13 points in the first seven minutes of action. Junior guard Reece Beekman — who finished the night with a 10-point, 10-assist double double — added a pair of threes himself, while graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas and graduate student guard Kihei Clark each found the bottom of the net on a trey apiece.
“We needed that,” Bennett said. “We needed a few of those outside shots to go down, and then they really started going down.”
Virginia’s play on the defensive side of things was nearly as impressive, as the Cavaliers held the Bears to just two for 10 on field goals to begin the period, forcing five turnovers in the same timeframe. That tenacious display in protecting the rim paired with a torrid stretch from behind the three-point line catalyzed an eye-popping 29-5 Virginia run over the first 9:13 of the second half, putting them on top 59-38 with 10:47 remaining.
But Baylor didn’t go away easily. The Bears used two quick threes and a couple of free throws from George to score 15 of the game’s next 18 points and shrink their deficit to just 11 with under eight minutes to play. What was once a 21-point lead for the Cavaliers had come within a bucket of single digits.
Shedrick and Gardner free throws eased the stress for Virginia for a little, but a triple from Flagler and two conversions at the charity stripe by senior guard Dale Bonner brought the score to 69-60 as the game entered its final five minutes.
The Cavaliers didn’t let Baylor get any closer for the next while, and it was Shedrick at the forefront. The junior scored six points in 46 seconds, emphasized by a ferocious fastbreak dunk following a steal on defense. The jam gave Virginia a 13-point advantage with only 2:39 remaining.
But still, the Bears kept fighting. They embarked on a 9-2 run, again led by Flagler and Cryer, to bring the contest within six points as just over a minute remained on the clock.
“We couldn’t stop them [Baylor] at the end, which was the disappointing part,” Bennett said.
However, Vander Plas was fouled on the ensuing possession and calmly knocked down both free throws — Virginia’s 26th and 27th of the night — to give the Cavaliers an insurmountable 81-73 lead. The graduate student finished with 14 points on the night.
Virginia will return to action Sunday against No. 19 Illinois to decide the championship of the Continental Tire Main Event. The game is set for tipoff at 3 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN.