In Virginia men’s basketball’s 16th and final game inside John Paul Jones Arena this season, the No. 13 Cavaliers (23-6, 15-5 ACC) trumped Louisville 75-60 Saturday. Virginia controlled the Cardinals (4-27, 2-18 ACC) from start to finish, taking the lead just 15 seconds into the proceedings and never relinquishing it after.
Having already sealed a double-bye in the ACC Tournament following their Tuesday night victory over Clemson, the Cavaliers had their sights set on a bigger prize Saturday — an ACC regular season title. Coach Tony Bennett and company knew that a win would be enough to share the prize with Miami or Pittsburgh, and doing it on Senior Day made the achievement even sweeter.
Senior center Francisco Caffaro, who played his last game in Charlottesville Saturday, reflected on the level of effort Virginia put in to reach the top following a below-par campaign last season.
“It took a lot of work, and just determination,” Caffaro said. “Having the ending that we had last year, compared to the ending that we had this year, kind of showed that the work we put in really paid off for us.”
When the game tipped, it was the guard play that propelled Virginia. The Cavaliers were not fazed by Louisville’s attempts to switch its defensive scheme between man-to-man and zone, using quick ball movement to get several good looks.
The hosts’ exploits led to 13 assists on their 13 first-half field goals, nine of which were dished out by graduate student guard Kihei Clark and junior guard Reece Beekman. Senior guard Armaan Franklin led the way with eight points in the opening period, but it was a balanced Virginia scoring attack – eight Cavaliers converted a field goal.
“Guys were pinpointing their passes, running good stuff,” Bennett said. “When we can share the ball and have that kind of assist-to-turnover ratio, good things are usually gonna happen.”
On the other end, Virginia hounded the Cardinals every chance it got. Louisville made only three of its first 11 field goals, coughing the ball up six times as the teams headed for the under-eight media timeout. The Cavaliers held a resounding 24-10 lead.
Virginia endured a cold spell on offense that featured five consecutive missed goals, but Beekman soon got the hosts back on track. The junior drained a triple from the corner before finding freshman guard Ryan Dunn inside for a thunderous jam to put the Cavaliers up 31-18.
A pair of Clark free-throws and a triple from freshman guard Isaac McKneely sent Virginia into halftime with a comfortable 36-20 advantage.
Out of the break, neither team made a notable surge in either direction. Graduate student forward Jayden Gardner went to work for the Cavaliers, utilizing advantageous post matchups to score six consecutive points on a trio of midrange jumpers.
But the Cardinals held their own, and it was senior guard El Ellis causing the problems for Virginia. Ellis contributed 10 of the Cardinals’ first 21 points of the half, including a triple that clawed Louisville back within 15. On the following possession, junior forward JJ Traynor converted a putback layup to cut the visitors’ deficit to 13 with 7:54 remaining.
Now on a 5-0 run and as close as they had been since the first half, the Cardinals may have felt some momentum starting to build. But Clark and Beekman settled the nerves of Cavaliers fans as they have so many times before.
The guard duo combined to assist on four consecutive field goals for Virginia, dishing out easy buckets inside to Gardner, Franklin, Dunn and graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas. With the clock ticking under three minutes, the Cavaliers had stretched their advantage back up to 15.
“[Clark and Beekman] are so important for us,” Bennett said. “When they’re locked in and right… that’s so significant for us.”
While the game itself never got close down the stretch, there were still several notable moments for Virginia in the final few minutes.
Gardner, Clark, Franklin, Vander Plas and Caffaro all got their send-offs as they walked off the court for the last time inside John Paul Jones Arena. Senior guard Chase Coleman, also in the linedup and the final Senior Day honoree, was brought into the game by Bennett with 38 seconds to play.
In a special moment, Coleman connected on a three-pointer in the final seconds of his collegiate basketball career. Already on their feet, Virginia fans drowned the senior in applause for what was just his ninth career field goal for the Cavaliers.
“A surreal feeling,” Coleman said. “It’s something that I can tell my kids about… I was a part of something special here in Charlottesville.”
Soon after, the horn sounded to confirm Virginia’s sixth ACC regular season championship in 10 seasons. Gardner and Franklin paced Virginia with 16 points each, while Beekman added 11 assists to seal his fourth career game with double-figure assists.
The Cavaliers reached 70 points for the first time since Jan. 28 against Boston College, snapping a nine-game stretch without doing so. Virginia’s performance also included 25 assists, 58 percent shooting from the floor and a 78.6 percent clip from the charity stripe.
“I think we ran good offense,” Bennett said. “We were moving harder, got some good looks and made some free throws.”
An effort like this is what every Cavaliers fan hoped to see as the postseason looms. The strong defense is a given, but Virginia will need to maintain the level of offensive efficiency they showed Saturday if they want to push for additional, larger awards this season.
“Now it turns to ACC conference tournament play and being as ready as you can,” Bennett said. “I think the last two games were a step in the right direction.”
The Cavaliers, holders of the No. 2 seed in the ACC Tournament, will return to action Thursday against North Carolina or the winner of Boston College versus Louisville. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. and is set to be streamed on ESPN2.