The No. 7 Cavaliers (20-4, 12-3 ACC) just barely downed the Cardinals (3-23, 1-14 ACC) in a surprisingly narrow 61-58 final Wednesday night in Louisville, Ky. Coming off a hard-fought home win against Duke, Virginia was able to stave off a feisty Louisville team who have shown life as of late, despite just a single win in conference play all season long.
“We’re not a team that just separates all the time,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “We missed a couple of close ones that could’ve perhaps made that a little more comfortable at the end.”
The first five minutes started off painfully slow, as the Cavaliers shot just 3-11 en route to seven points while the Cardinals had just five points – all from redshirt junior forward Jae’Lyn Withers.
However, the slow offensive struggles continued for Virginia well into the first half. A field goal drought of just under four and a half minutes from the Cavaliers helped give Louisville a 15-10 lead with just over 10 minutes to play.
The Cardinals began to turn their offense on a little bit, as senior guard El Ellis started with 13 of their first 18 points. The crowd was immediately alive when the Cardinals grabbed a lead, visibly hungry for just their fourth win of the season.
The nerves of the Virginia players were also visible, as a 6-20 start from the field included several good looks that felt like awkward shots and never really had a chance to go in the basket.
Luckily, the Cavaliers’ offense woke up just as the Cardinal offense began to crumble. Virginia went on a 12-0 run towards the end of the half, using a three-pointer from graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas to take a 29-26 lead into the half.
As the second half got underway, a similar Louisville offense came out and the Cavaliers endured another multi-minute scoring drought. At the under-16 media timeout, the Cavaliers led 37-30 thanks to physical play in the paint by graduate student forward Jayden Gardner, who has been a serious offensive weapon as of late.
Yet, the pesky Cardinals refused to go away. Another brutal scoring drought caused by several turnovers plagued the Cavaliers, while more three-pointers and jumpers from Louisville cut the score to 39-37 as fans inside the KFC Yum! Center excitedly got on their feet. A layup from the Cardinals tied the game at 39-39.
It became a back-and-forth affair as the contest wound down, with both teams making decisive buckets. Whithers was the key for Louisville, but important three-pointers from freshman guard Isaac McKneely and Vander Plas pushed Virginia ahead. The Cavaliers led 49-44 with eight minutes left on the clock.
Virginia’s lead grew to nine – their largest of the night – after free throws from graduate student guard Kihei Clark.
But the Cardinals fought back consistently. Even when Virginia notched a double-digit lead, redshirt freshman guard Mike James and Ellis made tough shots to keep the game close.
With just 30 seconds remaining, Virginia led by a single possession as the score sat at 61-58. After Clark missed a 1-and-1 free throw, Louisville frantically ran around the three-point arc searching for a game-tying opportunity but came up well short on the shot. The Cavaliers escaped 61-58.
“Good defensive stand on our last possession,” Bennett said. “I thought our guys covered for each other and guarded that three-point line well.”
Clark was again a Swiss army knife for the Cavaliers, doing it all en route to scoring 14 points, dishing out six assists and grabbing four rebounds. The guard scored or assisted on Virginia's last 11 points, and now holds the record for the most ACC wins at 71.
Vander Plas also played relatively well in an extreme down night for the Cavaliers, notching his first double-double in a Virginia uniform with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
The main liability of Bennett’s small-ball lineup comes when Virginia fails to make shots or keep the ball secure on offense. Teams like the Cardinals with great guard play can hurt the Cavaliers in both transition and the half-court in these situations. Ellis and James combined for 31 points and six three-pointers while six turnovers for Virginia which made this game an unexpected nailbiter.
It was apparent Wednesday night that if the Cavaliers stand any chance to make deep postseason runs, Clark – the final remaining member of the 2019 National Championship squad – will have to use his experience and skill to push this team to success, particularly towards the end of games. That statement holds true especially when the Virginia offense simply goes cold, which remains a scary yet realistic prospect for much more important matchups as they encounter a tougher slate of opponents moving forward.
“We gotta keep working,” Bennett said. “I’m thankful for the win and to get outta here.”
Up next for the Cavaliers is a home matchup against Notre Dame Saturday at 12 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN2 and broadcast on Virginia Sports Radio Network.