Virginia and Virginia Tech squared off in the Commonwealth Clash in Charlottesville Wednesday night. The Cavaliers (14-3, 6-2 ACC) took down the Hokies (11-7, 1-6 ACC) by a score of 78-68 with students back in full support on the first day of classes for the spring semester.
Former Virginia player Ty Jerome and NBA star Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors were among the packed crowd inside John Paul Jones Arena anticipating a fierce matchup between the in-state rivals.
The first five minutes were completely dominated by the Cavaliers. Holding the Hokies to zero made field goals, every Virginia basket ignited the crowd. Defensive plays made by multiple Cavaliers led to easy transition layups. Then, a quick drive by junior guard Reece Beekman led to a three-point play, giving Virginia an 11-2 lead with 15:46 remaining.
After the players settled into the energy of the rival matchup, both teams went back and forth trading baskets. Freshman guard MJ Collins and senior guard Hunter Cattoor hit three-pointers to try and cut into the Cavalier lead, but a successful three-point play by freshman guard Ryan Dunn and a three-pointer by senior guard Armaan Franklin made it 17-8 with just over 14 minutes to play.
However, the Cavaliers then went on a scoring drought, a problem that has plagued them all year. Virginia Tech was able to then go on an 11-0 run to take a 21-19 lead with 7:47 remaining.
The Cavaliers turned things around after the five-plus minute scoring drought, hitting seven of nine field goals. Dunn was particularly impressive on the defensive side of the ball, playing lockdown defense on senior forward Justyn Mutts and forcing a couple of turnovers.
A spark of energy ignited the Charlottesville faithful right before the buzzer sounded as Beekman instinctively drove to the open basket and hammered down a ferocious one-handed dunk, making it 40-31 at halftime.
Despite shooting 12-23 from the field and 5-9 from beyond the arc, the Hokies still trailed the Cavaliers thanks to the five turnovers Virginia forced. Franklin led the Cavaliers with 12 points at halftime, while Cattoor — who came into the game averaging just 9.6 points and had missed the last four games due to injury — had eight at the break.
Hot shooting to start the half put the Hokies right back in the game. Junior guard Darius Maddox drilled two threes and graduate student forward Grant Basile added one of his own to pull the Hokies within just two points.
Both offenses continued to go back and forth. The Hokies were led by Maddox and Mutts, while the Cavaliers saw freshman guard Isaac McKneely drive to the basket as he drew a foul and made a layup through contact on back-to-back possessions.
With under eight minutes to play, the Hokies had whittled the Cavalier lead to just four points, with the score sitting at 59-55. A Clark three-pointer and a turnover into an and-one for graduate student forward Jayden Gardner, though, pushed the lead back to 10 in the blink of an eye.
Clark responded to Basile’s three-pointer with one of his own, and Beekman converted yet another and-one chance to make the score 74-60 with 3:52 remaining.
While Collins and Cattoor each made threes as a last-resort comeback attempt, graduate student forward Vander Plas converted a layup to put the lead to double digits again for good. Virginia Tech would never come closer, with the final score ending 78-68 in favor of the Cavaliers.
Virginia played arguably one of its most complete games all season, scoring 78 points while managing to shut the Hokies’ offense down the stretch when it mattered most. Virginia Tech started the game 9-15 from three, but ended just 12-27, with the Virginia defense shutting down opportunities from beyond the arc.
The Cavaliers shot 29-57 from the field and an impressive 12-13 from the charity stripe. All five starters scored double digits, led by Clark who had 20 points and added five assists.
Dunn and McKneely are seeing more and more playing time and giving great minutes off the bench as freshmen. So has Vander Plas, who has moved into the starting lineup over the last two games and played 27 minutes off the bench in the 65-58 win against North Carolina. The re-emergence of Vander Plas has so far seemed to reamplify the Cavalier offense, paired with a fully healthy Beekman and more consistent shooting from the likes of Franklin, Clark and Gardner.
This team seems to be finally clicking at the right time as ACC play goes on, not only on defense as everyone expects with Coach Tony Bennett’s squad, but also on offense. It will be fun and intriguing to watch as experienced and new faces like Vander Plas, Dunn and McKneely fare the higher the stakes get.
Up next for the Cavaliers is a matchup on the road against Wake Forest Saturday at 2 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU and the Virginia Sports Radio Network.