After returning to the top-five of the AP Poll for the first time since being ranked No. 4 in the 2020 Preseason AP Poll, Virginia men’s basketball showed why it belongs among the nation’s elite Friday night in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers (5-0, 0-0 ACC) took down the Hawks (2-4, 0-0 MEAC) with relative ease, winning by a score of 72-45 back at home after capturing the Continental Tire Main Event Championship last weekend in Las Vegas, Nev.
Virginia jumped out to an early 10-4 lead through five minutes, thanks to graduate student forward Jayden Gardner’s physical play in the paint and junior guard Reece Beekman’s stingy defense. Gardner hit three layups for six points all in the paint while Beekman recorded a steal and a block in consecutive defensive possessions.
The game quickly got out of hand as the Hawks’ offense was essentially shut down by the Cavaliers’ defense. Beekman continued to lead the defensive charge as he recorded two more steals and forced an errant pass.
With the lead up to 16, the Hawks suddenly awoke on offense and went on an 8-0 run to cut the deficit in half. Virginia coughed up the ball a couple of times as well and the Hawks seemed to come to life.
However, Virginia regained a double-digit lead with just under seven minutes remaining and maintained it throughout the rest of the first half. Gardner spearheaded the first half Cavalier offense as he had 18 points, with 14 of them coming in the paint.
At halftime, Virginia led 40-22 over Maryland Eastern Shore. The Cavaliers shot 15-25 from the field. The difference maker on offense was points in the paint, as Virginia scored 24 points in the paint to Maryland Eastern Shore’s 12. The Hawks were held to 10-27 from the field, including just 1-9 from beyond the arc.
Additionally, Beekman’s four steals set the tone on defense as the Hawks committed 10 total turnovers. The Cavaliers scored 14 points off of turnovers, compared to Maryland Eastern Shore’s four.
The second half began similarly to the first, with the Virginia defense causing turnovers while the offense started 4-4 from the field.
A flashy sequence came just three minutes into the half for the Cavaliers. On back-to-back possessions, the Cavaliers finished off alley-oop layups for scores. First, junior forward Kadin Shedrick grabbed a steal and threw the ball to Beekman, who threw it up for senior guard Armaan Franklin. Just after, graduate student Kihei Clark lobbed the ball up perfectly for Shedrick who was able to lay it in.
Much of the same play from the first half carried over, as Gardner continued to dominate around the rim. He added eight points in the half, finishing with 26 points for the game on 12-15 shooting.
The game slowed down throughout the half as both teams could not get much going on offense — only three total field goals were made between the under-12 media timeout and the under-four media timeout. The two teams traded missed shots for several possessions as the Cavaliers were content with running the clock out and securing the victory.
Virginia closed out the contest with a hot shooting burst as freshman guard Isaac McKneely hit back-to-back three-pointers and senior guard Chase Coleman drilled a three to notch his first points of the season — much to the crowd’s delight. The final buzzer sounded with the score reading 72-45.
For the Hawks, there were not many offensive positives as they shot 19-55 from the floor. Graduate student guard Zion Styles led Maryland Eastern Shore with 11 points while also adding four rebounds.
Their three-point defense on the Cavaliers was notable, as Virginia was 2-12 from three until a couple minutes left in the game. Even so, the Cavaliers only finished 5-15 from beyond the arc.
For the Cavaliers, Gardner was the main contributor on the offensive side of the ball. On defense, Beekman and Shedrick’s play was critical as the pair combined for seven steals, with Beekman tallying four and Shedrick tallying three.
It was particularly impressive to see Gardner carry so much of the offensive load. After leading the Cavaliers in scoring last season, averaging 15.4 points per game, Gardner was averaging 7.8 points per game through the first four games this season, sixth on the team.
His performance on Friday was yet another demonstration of how deep and versatile the team is. Any of the players in the seemingly-established nine-man rotation can pick up the slack at any moment. The key for Coach Tony Bennett’s squad moving forward will be continuing to establish consistency on both the individual and team level as the ACC schedule is on the horizon.
Bennett noted after the game how important Gardner is to the team.
“We're going to need that offensive punch that he gives us,” Bennett said. “Because when he's aggressive… that's when he's at his best and I think that really helps us.”
Virginia faces another tough non-conference test this Tuesday as they travel to Michigan for the Big 10/ACC Challenge. Tip-off is set for 9:30 p.m. in Ann Arbor, Mich. and the game will be streamed on ESPN and broadcast on the Virginia Sports Radio Network.