No. 3 Virginia hosted James Madison Tuesday night in Charlottesville in what wound up being a very tight game. However, the Cavaliers (8-0, 1-0 ACC) were able to remain unbeaten as they took down the Dukes (7-3, 0-0 Sun Belt) 55-50.
Virginia was eager to defeat James Madison, as the in-state Dukes beat the Cavaliers 52-49 last year, earning the Dukes their first-ever win against Virginia.
The game started off as a chess match of tempo, and the pace of play stood out early — James Madison came into the game as the 16th fastest team in tempo while Virginia ranked 361st, third-to-last.
As both teams tried to implement their style of play, a tough break befell the Cavaliers. Junior guard Reece Beekman — who has been shaken up recently after injuring his ankle against Michigan last week — landed awkwardly on a layup early and had to come out of the game with what was confirmed to be a hamstring injury. He would not return but remained on the sideline in uniform.
James Madison took an 8-7 lead just before the under-16 minutes media timeout. While the Cavaliers continued to play tough defense on the Dukes, Virginia didn’t get many good looks at the net. Additionally, James Madison dominated the boards through 10 minutes, outrebounding Virginia 11-7.
The Cavaliers got their offense going as the half progressed, with graduate student guard Kihei Clark and senior guard Armaan Franklin hitting nice shots to make it 15-10 in favor of Virginia.
Arguably the moment of the night came in transition when Clark fed a perfect bounce pass to freshman forward Ryan Dunn. Dunn elevated to the rim and threw down a vicious two-handed dunk over James Madison graduate student forward Mezie Offurum to make it 17-10. A three from James Madison senior guard Vado Morse quickly quieted the crowd.
While the Dukes fought back, it felt like the Virginia defense was making enough stops and that the offense was about to get into a rhythm. An athletic pass from junior forward Kadin Shedrick to Franklin for a three-pointer made it an 11 point Virginia lead with just under four minutes to play. However, again James Madison made a three to dispel the Cavaliers’ attempt to grow the lead.
The first half ended with Virginia leading 27-20. James Madison shot 8-29 from the field in the first half, but the Cavaliers didn’t shoot much better, shooting 11-27 from the field. The rebounding kept the Dukes deceptively close to Virginia as they outrebounded the Cavaliers 24-14 in the first half.
The Cavaliers forced eight turnovers but only scored nine points off of those chances, while fierce offensive rebounding and key baskets by the Dukes helped stave off any momentum Virginia seemed to capture.
As the second half started, the Dukes came out fast, putting Virginia under pressure early. A pair of threes from Clark kept the Cavaliers in the lead but the offense looked sluggish without Beekman.
While Morse and graduate student guard Takal Molson helped James Madison fight back into the game, Clark sustained Virginia’s offense as he scored 11 of the first 13 points of the second half for the Cavaliers.
The game became sloppy as the Dukes went on a stretch hitting only one of nine field goals while the Cavaliers racked up turnovers. After committing only two in the first half, Virginia had seven in the second half alone.
As the offense for Virginia almost grinded to a halt, the Dukes ever so slowly chipped down the lead and eventually tied the game at 42 when graduate student forward Alonzo Sule hit a three-pointer with under eight minutes to play.
Fifth-year forward Jayden Gardner scored back-to-back for Virginia to retake the lead. However, as James Madison put the Cavaliers into the bonus and double bonus for fouls — with Mezie Offurum eventually fouling out late in the game — missed free throws plagued Virginia. The Cavaliers shot 12-24 from the free throw line on the night, and that ultimately kept the Dukes alive.
A Clark layup pushed the lead to 51-43 with 4:08 remaining, but Morse and Molson helped James Madison claw back, and the score stood at 52-50 in favor of Virginia with a minute left. On the ensuing Virginia possession, Dunn made a driving layup down the baseline, and then James Madison threw the ball away at the other end to give Virginia a 54-50 lead and the ball with 36 seconds remaining. After Clark hit a free throw, the Dukes missed a three as the buzzer sounded, and Virginia took the win, 55-50.
The offense again looked inefficient as Virginia ended shooting 19-45 from the field, including a worrisome 5-21 from three-point range. Yet the defense was impressive and critical. James Madison averaged 95 points per game coming in, but the Cavaliers almost halved that number and saw James Madison shoot 15-55 from the field.
After averaging 74.6 points over the first seven games, the highest under Coach Tony Bennett, Virginia has now scored 62 points and 55 points in back-to-back games.
If the Cavaliers want a shot of taking down No.1 Houston, they’ll need to regain their offensive prowess and confidence over the extended break before hosting the Cougars Dec. 17. The game will potentially be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup as No. 2 Texas fell to No. 17 Illinois Tuesday night and the Cavaliers may rise to the No. 2 spot in Monday’s updated Associated Press poll.
Tipoff is set for 2 p.m. Dec. 17. It will be streamed on ESPN2 and broadcast on Virginia Sports Radio Network.