Playing their second game in three days, Virginia men’s basketball came up clutch on the road against Syracuse, winning 67-62 Monday night. The No.6 Cavaliers (17-3, 9-2 ACC) used tough defense down the stretch to defeat the Orange (13-10, 6-6 ACC) who were determined to spring an upset at home.
The first three minutes quickly set the tone for the rest of the game. Sloppy offense by Syracuse and efficient, zone-breaking offense for the Cavaliers saw graduate student forward Jayden Gardner start with four points and senior guard Armaan Franklin and graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas drain a three each, giving Virginia an early 10-2 lead.
However, tough shots by the Orange cut the lead to four as the score sat at 14-10 with 14:16 to go, despite Virginia shooting 5-6 from the field.
While Virginia shot relatively well, Syracuse did, too, and kept pace fairly easily with the Cavaliers. Syracuse quickly used their home court to their advantage, playing off a raucous crowd to keep the momentum growing and growing. The Cavaliers went on a bit of a scoring drought, and the Orange grabbed their first lead of the night at 24-23 on a jumper by freshman guard Judah Mintz.
The game slowed down as the half came to a close. Both teams missed shots and committed turnovers, and neither team really ran away with the game. Turnovers plagued Virginia — the Cavaliers had seven turnovers in the first half despite only averaging 9.2 turnovers per game coming into the matchup.
At the half, the Cavaliers led the Orange by just one point as the score sat at 36-35. While the Cavaliers moved the ball effectively against the Orange zone — assisting 12 of their 13 made field goals — the Orange stayed firmly in the game through an equally efficient offense. Led by Mintz and senior center Jesse Edwards, the team posted a 16-25 split from the field.
The Cavaliers shot an impressive 6-10 from behind the arc while the Orange had 26 points in the paint compared to Virginia’s 8.
The Cavaliers started off the second half disciplined on defense, causing a few turnovers. Additionally, layups made by the Cavaliers gave them a quick 42-35 lead out of the halftime locker room, silencing the always-present Syracuse fanbase. The inability of either team to break away continued, though, as Syracuse regained the lead with 12:47 remaining in the second half. They continued their run and extended it to a 12-0 streak which was eventually stopped by a layup by Vander Plas to move the score to 51-48.
The atmosphere inside the JMA Wireless Dome really started to heat up even with 10 minutes left in the half as Virginia desperately tried to retake the lead. But as has been the case for most of the season, the Cavaliers’ stars showed up when needed. A one-handed alley-oop from freshman guard Ryan Dunn — courtesy of graduate student guard Kihei Clark — and a Franklin three-pointer helped tie the game at 54-54.
Another Franklin three gave Virginia a 57-54 lead with just under six minutes remaining and helped silence the crowd temporarily. Virginia stretched their lead with free throws and a Clark three-pointer to make it 62-58. With just 2:08 remaining, the Cavaliers had the ball and a 64-60 lead.
While leading by just two points, Gardner drew a charge on Edwards — his fifth and final foul — with a minute left to silence the Orange crowd and give Virginia an opportunity to pull away.
A Gardner fadeaway jumper then pushed the lead back to two possessions, and a Franklin free throw iced the game, handing the Cavaliers their seventh straight victory with an impressive 67-62 road win. Coach Tony Bennett commented on Gardner’s impact on the game in his post-game press conference.
“I thought there were a few huge plays,” Bennett said. “Of course [Gardner’s] basket at the end. We just had enough of those plays that you need.”
Gardner led the Cavaliers in scoring with 17 points, while Franklin and Clark added 12 each. Mintz led both teams with 20 points, and Edwards tacked on 14 as well for the Orange. Clark also added 10 assists to notch his third career double-double, and his first since Dec. 29, 2019 against Navy.
Moving forward, the lineup combination that has started the past five straight games for Virginia – and has been key to sustaining the Cavaliers’ seven-game win streak – will need to not only maintain but improve its offensive chemistry when substitutes occur to find quality shots. The lineup consists of Clark, Beekman, Franklin, Gardner and Vander Plas — while not featuring a center, the lineup allows Gardner and Vander Plas to double taller players on defense while spacing the floor on offense. So long as those five can sustain their success as a unit, Virginia has a good chance to win against anyone they face.
Awaiting the Cavaliers is a road test Saturday against rival Virginia Tech. Despite downing the Hokies at home 78-68 Jan. 18, Cassell Coliseum is always a difficult environment to play in, and Virginia will have to fight a healthier Virginia Tech team to push their winning streak to eight. Tip-off is set for 12 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2 and the Virginia Sports Radio Network.