Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett had a chance to enshrine himself as the winningest coach in Cavaliers history Tuesday, entering the contest at Pittsburgh sitting in a tie with Terry Holland at 326 victories. But the Panthers (11-4, 4-0 ACC) had different ideas, using a torrid second half, clutch free-throw shooting and an overall gritty performance to stun No. 11 Virginia (10-3, 2-2 ACC) 68-65 and stay perfect in conference play.
“Pitt’s good, and they’re tough,” Bennett said. “Good teams will destroy poor execution, and that’s what it felt like… our defense wasn’t executing well.”
In spite of the loss, Virginia controlled the proceedings early on, using sound defense to hold Pittsburgh without a point for the opening 3:39 of the game. On the other end, an opening-possession jumper from senior guard Armaan Franklin paired with buckets inside by junior forward Kadin Shedrick and graduate student guard Kihei Clark — the team’s leading scorer on the night with 17 points — took the Cavaliers into a 6-0 advantage.
Pittsburgh — led by junior forward Blake Hinson, who finished the game with 16 points — then pounced on a Virginia scoring drought, with the junior supplying five quick points to help the Panthers embark on a 6-0 run of their own to knot up the score.
As the crowd inside Petersen Events Center grew noisier, Franklin struck gold at a crucial time. The senior scored seven consecutive points across four possessions to catapult the Cavaliers back into a 15-9 lead with the teams heading for the under-12 media timeout. Not only did Franklin’s showing create a positive impact on the scoreboard, but it capped much of the Panthers momentum.
With the crowd quieted out of the break, the game entered a lull. Virginia and the Panthers combined to shoot just two for eight on field goals and score only five points during a span of 3:32. A midrange jumper from graduate student forward Jayden Gardner — two of only four points on the night — put the Cavaliers up by five points with 8:51 remaining.
As the opening period droned along, Virginia began to build a commanding lead. Clark and junior guard Reece Beekman drained triples on back-to-back possessions before Shedrick threw down a ferocious dunk off of a nifty pass from Beekman. Shedrick’s jam lifted the visitors’ advantage to 27-14 with a touch over four minutes remaining.
Pittsburgh put forth a serious attempt to work itself back into the contest before halftime, getting as close as seven after a pair of free throws by freshman forward Guillermo Diaz Graham. But the Panthers failed to locate freshman guard Isaac McKneely on the ensuing possession, and McKneely made the hosts pay with a three-pointer that gave the Cavaliers a 33-23 edge as the first-half horn sounded.
Virginia played an exceptional opening frame on the defensive side of the ball, forcing eight Pittsburgh turnovers while holding the Panthers to only 32 percent from the floor. Franklin paced all scorers with nine points, adding three assists and two steals to cap an impressive early display.
The second half began as a supremely faster-paced affair than the first. The Cavaliers made good on each of their first four field goals, the last of which coming on a three-pointer from the redhot Franklin. For Pittsburgh, graduate student guard Jamarius Burton and senior guard Nike Sibande did much of the heavy lifting. The pair combined for all 12 Panthers points in the opening four minutes of the final period, bringing their deficit down to nine.
When Virginia finally cooled off, Pittsburgh kept it coming. The Panthers forced multiple turnovers that led to easy layups in transition, and they had similar success when initiating halfcourt offense. All in all, Pittsburgh scored 14 unanswered points to take a 46-44 lead — their first of the game — as the clock ticked under 11 minutes.
“They were touching the paint pretty easy in transition,” Bennett said. “That won’t cut it defensively, and we’ll just have to go back to the drawing board.”
With the Cavaliers slowly losing control of the game, they got a much needed lift from Clark. The guard converted on an and-one and a three-pointer inside of a minute, with the latter pulling Virginia’s deficit to just one with 9:13 remaining. After a couple of important stops, the Cavaliers regained their advantage following an and-one cashed in by Beekman.
But in the minutes to follow, the Panthers looked like the better team yet again. Sophomore center Federiko Federiko made two layups on either side of a Hinson triple, and another long scoring drought for Virginia meant Pittsburgh had built up a 60-55 edge with 3:59 to play.
With plenty of time left on the clock, the Cavaliers didn’t panic. Shedrick banked in a layup from a Clark pass, and a couple of possessions later, McKneely swished a triple to square the game at 60 apiece.
Right as the clock moved under one minute, Federiko put the Panthers in front 62-60 with a layup. Shedrick failed to get his layup off before the shot clock sounded on the Cavaliers, and Pittsburgh never looked back. The Panthers sank all six free throws that Virginia challenged them with, and left no doubt that they would snap their eight-game losing streak against the Cavaliers.
Virginia shot an above-average 42.9 percent from three-point territory, but were more than neutralized at the free-throw line where they were outscored 15-4. The Cavaliers garnered a season-low four attempts from the charity stripe.
The visitors’ four double-figure scorers — Clark, Franklin, Beekman and Shedrick — weren’t enough to keep pace with Pittsburgh’s deadly trio of Hinson, Burton and Sibande, who combined for 47 of the Panthers 68 points on their way to a tenth win in 11 games.
“We gotta look in the mirror and keep trying to find ways,” Bennett said. “It stings, because if we just would have tightened the defense up I think it would have been there for us.”