Saturday afternoon was met with more winning ways for Virginia men’s basketball, who toppled Notre Dame 57-55 to remain an undefeated 8-0 in the ACC at John Paul Jones Arena. The No. 7 Cavaliers (21-4, 13-3 ACC) did not do it in convincing fashion, coming inches away from a last-second defeat to the Fighting Irish (10-17, 2-14 ACC).
Although Virginia was certainly a heavy favorite on paper in this one, both the Cavaliers and Notre Dame have been no strangers to keeping games close. The loss marked the Fighting Irish’s ninth single-digit ACC defeat this season, while the win for Virginia is their ninth single-digit ACC victory.
“So many of our games we’ve won close,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “You just gotta come ready and be as right as you can, and your defense has to hold you in there when your offense is struggling.”
Aside from the defense, the guard play was the story early on Virginia, as both junior guard Reece Beekman and graduate student guard Kihei Clark made their presences felt in the first half.
Beekman was a thorn in the side of Notre Dame’s offense throughout the entirety of the period, showing active hands and unrelenting effort to force two early turnovers. But the junior showed prowess on the offensive end as well, knocking down a couple of tough jump shots en route to eight first-half points.
Clark entered the fold later than Beekman but nonetheless made his mark on the proceedings just as noticeably, as the graduate student sank a three-pointer and added a pair of interior buckets. When the horn sounded on the first half, Beekman and Clark had combined for 18 of the Cavaliers’ 29 points.
But despite the clinic that was being put on by Virginia’s backcourt duo, Notre Dame was not just there to participate.
The Fighting Irish drilled several shots from beyond the arc within the contest’s first 10 minutes, a passage in which graduate student guard Dane Goodwin acted as the catalyst. Notre Dame’s patch of success from deep kept them within a possession for much of the half.
But just as so many have when entering John Paul Jones Arena, the visitors soon encountered some turbulence. The Fighting Irish endured a scoring drought north of six minutes, allowing the Cavaliers to push the lead to as many as nine.
However, Notre Dame fought back in the final two minutes, embarking on a lightning-quick 7-2 run to cut their deficit to four.
The Fighting Irish did not stop there, as graduate student forward Nate Laszewski — who paced all scorers with 18 points — and company blitzed out of halftime with six unanswered points to take their first lead in over 17 minutes of action.
In spite of the growing frustration inside the arena, there was a moment to celebrate for Cavaliers fans after Clark found graduate student forward Jayden Gardner for a layup. The bucket tied the game at 31, but it also marked Clark’s 684th assist as a member of the men’s basketball team – the most by a single player in program history. The Virginia crowd rose to their feet to swarm Clark in applause.
“Kihei has been so important for our program,” Bennett said. “He’s a competitor of the highest level and he’s made a difference ever since he stepped foot on [Grounds].”
When play resumed, Notre Dame periodically switched to a zone defense to try and throw the Cavaliers off guard. In doing so, the Fighting Irish opened up a litany of space in the middle of the court, and Gardner took immediate advantage.
Helped by two midrange jumpers, the forward scored six straight points and made multiple inside-out passes to Beekman — who finished with 11 points for the night — and graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas for trifectas.
“That’s his sweet spot,” Bennett said. “He has that quick little push jump shot, and that’s his go-to.”
Gardner’s nicely-timed exploits — as well as a number of important baskets from senior guard Armaan Franklin — pushed Virginia into a 53-45 lead with 6:13 remaining.
But then, the Cavaliers' offensive well dried up at the worst possible time. Virginia made only one of their final eight field goals from that 6:13 mark, allowing Notre Dame to creep back within one point as the clock ticked under 30 seconds.
Clark sank a pair of big pressure shots at the charity stripe to take his points tally to a team-high 15 and restore the lead to three, and after a defensive stop it looked like the Cavaliers were on track for another victory. But Gardner missed the front end of his one-and-one with nine seconds remaining, opening the door for one last Notre Dame effort.
Virginia fouled graduate student guard Trey Wertz to avoid a potential game-tying three-pointer, but the plan nearly backfired. Wertz drilled the first free throw before intentionally missing the second.
As the ball came off the rim, it fell back into Wertz’s hands. The guard promptly found Goodwin all alone on the three-point arc, but he missed left on what would have been the game-winning shot as time expired.
“They got the look and he just missed it,” Bennett said.
The win is the 11th in 12 games for Virginia, who continues to chase down the regular season title in the ACC. They got a big lift in that chase Saturday from in-state rival Virginia Tech, who toppled Pittsburgh to give the Cavaliers sole possession of first place.
Despite the success, worries do still remain for Virginia. They will need to put together much more efficient shooting nights to knock off opponents who will certainly give them more trouble on the defensive end than the Fighting Irish managed Saturday.
“This is the time where you gotta double down on being sharp and focused and playing good basketball,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers’ next test comes Wednesday on the road against Boston College. The game will tip-off at 7 p.m. and is set to be broadcasted on ACC Network.