In what was arguably the biggest non-conference affair in the history of John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia men’s basketball failed to defend home court, falling 69-61 to Houston. The No. 2 Cavaliers (8-1, 1-0 ACC) didn’t bring enough firepower on either end of the floor to deal with the No. 5 Cougars (11-1, 0-0 AAC).
With the memory of last season’s 67-47 thrashing against Houston fresh in its mind, Virginia hoped revenge would be on the cards Saturday afternoon. But the Cougars — who placed all five starters in double figures, including a 17-point effort from freshman forward Jarace Walker — had different plans.
“They’re physical young men and they made some plays,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “You can see why they’ve had such a good year so far.”
Entering from an 11-day layoff since their last contest, Virginia did not look to be in need of shaking off rust early on. The Cavaliers scored the first nine points of the game, with graduate student guard Kihei Clark providing five of them. Clark hit the bottom of the net on a three-pointer and connected on two free throws before finding junior forward Kadin Shedrick with a no-look pass for an easy dunk. The jam counted for two of Shedrick’s team-high 16 points on the night.
Virginia’s 9-0 run to begin the game was soon brought to a halt, with Houston responding on a 7-0 run of their own. The Cavaliers had lost their hot hand on offense, but temporarily regained it behind a pair of three-pointers from freshman guard Isaac McKneely and junior guard Reece Beekman. The junior’s trey assured Virginia took a comfortable 15-9 advantage into the under-12 media timeout.
Out of the break, the Cavaliers went cold. Virginia endured a scoreless streak north of five minutes, failing to put points on the board on five consecutive possessions. The Cougars crept back into the contest with a few baskets on their side of the floor, and eventually gained their first lead with 8:25 to play through junior forward J’Wan Roberts’ layup.
Graduate student forward Jayden Gardner converted on a layup to put Virginia back on top for a moment, but Houston had no intention of letting the lead grow. Senior guard Marcus Sasser swished two quick triples — giving him a game-leading nine points for the half — to catalyze a 10-2 Cougars run, and Houston held a 26-19 edge with 3:50 left in the first period.
The Cavaliers found their offensive rhythm again as the opening frame wound down, and it was junior guard Armaan Franklin carrying the load. Franklin curled off of a screen for a three-pointer before penetrating the lane for an athletic layup a couple of possessions later. The guard brought Houston’s lead down to 30-26 when the first-half buzzer sounded.
For Virginia, there would have been disappointment to enter the final period trailing after the quick start, but the miniscule deficit wouldn’t have caused any alarm bells to ring for the time being. The Cavaliers needed someone to step up and take control of the game, as no Virginia player scored more than Gardner’s six in the first 20 minutes.
Gardner tried to act as that control for Virginia when the second half opened, hitting double-figures for the game with two quick layups out of the break. But the Cougars only built on their lead, sinking four of their first six field goal attempts to take a 10-point lead — the game’s largest on either end — with 15:24 remaining.
The Cavaliers tried to work their way back into the contest, but Houston’s offensive-rebounding excellence put those efforts on hold. The Cougars grabbed four second chances off the glass in a span of just over a minute, simultaneously halting any Virginia momentum while providing themselves with numerous extra opportunities on offense.
As a result, Houston was able to perry any advances made by the Cavaliers. A McKneely three-pointer and several free throws from the likes of Clark and Franklin were canceled out by periodic buckets from a host of Cougars, most notably threes from junior guard Jamal Shead and sophomore guard Tramon Mark. Virginia got no closer than eight points until a free throw from Gardner brought the proceedings to 51-44 with 5:27 to play.
But yet again, Houston benefitted from an offensive rebound on the following possession. Gardner swatted a Walker shot, but the ball fell into the hands of Mark. The sophomore promptly found a backpedaling Walker on the perimeter for an open three, and the Cougars went back up by double-digits.
The Cavaliers made one final push as the clock ticked under five minutes, using a pair of Gardner free throws and a quick steal and layup from Clark to get the game within two possessions. McKneely had a chance to halve the deficit out of the under-four media break, but his shot bounced around and out of the cylinder.
“Isaac [McKneely] got a real clean look,” Bennett said. “It sort of rattled in and out, it was right there.”
McKneely’s shot represented the last real chance Virginia had at a comeback, as Shead converted a layup on the other end to put Houston up 56-48 and wither away any remaining doubt about the game’s outcome.
The Cavaliers’ downfall came from behind the arc, where the team shot 27.3 percent. Clark and graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas — two of the team’s biggest threats from long range — combined to make only one of their 11 attempts from outside. Virginia’s problems from deep aren’t newfound, as the Cavaliers have now made just 25.8 percent of their three-pointers across the last three contests.
“You’re not going to win them all,” Bennett said. “This was a high level opponent — we’ll learn from it, and now step to the next one.”
Looking ahead, Virginia will try and rebound from this defeat Tuesday when they travel to No. 22 Miami for an Atlantic Coast Conference clash. The game will tip off at 8:30 p.m. and is set to be streamed on ACC Network.