Virginia men’s basketball exacted revenge Thursday, toppling North Carolina 68-59 in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals. The Cavaliers (24-6, 15-5 ACC) were sent home by the Tar Heels (20-13, 11-9 ACC) in this round last season, but had no plans of letting lightning strike twice.
In lieu of the news that graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas will miss the remainder of the season with a right-hand fracture suffered Wednesday, Coach Tony Bennett opted to insert senior center Francisco Caffaro into the starting lineup. It was Caffaro’s first start of the season.
“I thought the guys played as hard as they could,” Bennett said. “Losing a guy that’s played a lot, that’s always tough. But this group rallied around that and each other, and came out and played against a team that was playing some hot basketball from the last game.”
To Bennett’s point, Caffaro and junior forward Kadin Shedrick did a stellar job defending senior forward Armando Bacot throughout. The duo held North Carolina’s star big man to just four points and forced him to cough the ball up three times.
Shedrick, who had fallen out of the rotation after not seeing a single minute in either of Virginia’s last two contests, swatted five shots on the night.
“Nobody expects that [Vander Plas’ injury] to happen,” Shedrick said. “When you’re kind of just thrown back into the action, you gotta make sure you’re ready.”
Virginia’s frontcourt exploits allowed them to hold the Tar Heels to only three of their opening nine field goals, but the Cavaliers could not get much going on their side of the ball either. Virginia converted just two of their first nine shot attempts, and North Carolina led 9-5 with 11:38 to play.
Thanks to junior guard Reece Beekman, that all changed when the teams emerged from the second media timeout.
Beekman took complete control of the game for a nearly six-minute stretch, contributing to 15 consecutive points for Virginia. The guard worked himself inside the paint for a layup and made his name well-known in transition, finishing off two fastbreaks for the Cavaliers.
The junior added a three-pointer and a trio of assists before he was done, catalyzing a 14-6 Virginia run that sent the Cavaliers into a sudden eight-point advantage.
“We were running good, tough offense,” Bennett said. “Our guys were screening well, we got some nice drives.”
But North Carolina put together their own run as the half neared its end, drilling triples on three of their final four possessions to close the gap to one at the break. Tar Heels junior guard RJ Davis sank two of them, giving him a game-high 12 points for the period and setting up a tantalizing final 20 minutes.
Davis continued to hurt Virginia when the second half opened, draining two more three-pointers for North Carolina’s first six points of the period. But the Cavaliers came ready with sufficient counterpunches.
Senior guard Armaan Franklin and graduate student forward Jayden Gardner each poured in four quick points, while Caffaro added a monstrous putback dunk. Virginia led 37-32 with 15:31 remaining.
The Tar Heels kept pushing, but their attempts at a complete turn of the tide were sullied each time by a resilient Cavaliers team. The lead remained at seven at the under-12 media break.
Out of that break, much to Virginia’s dismay, North Carolina junior guard Caleb Love finally made his presence felt in the proceedings. After missing his first seven shots of the ballgame, Love knocked down two important trifectas to keep the Tar Heels above water.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, Franklin and freshman guard Isaac McKneely also connected on three-pointers in the same passage to assure Virginia’s lead remained safe for the time being.
But as the clock ticked below three minutes, things began to get nervy for Virginia. The Cavaliers had scored only one point since the 7:00 mark, meaning a free throw from Davis brought North Carolina’s deficit to two with 1:59 remaining.
Virginia would need to excel in two areas down the stretch if they had plans of moving on: free-throw shooting and press breaks. Those who have been following the Cavaliers as of late will know the former has been a serious challenge, leaving there to be some nerves down the stretch in this one.
But they executed in both sectors to the highest degree – especially from the charity stripe. Virginia showed no problems moving the ball up the court against the Tar Heels' full-court press and made nine of their final 10 free-throw attempts.
The Cavaliers got stop after stop on the other end, and soon enough, a breathtaking Shedrick jam sent them on their way to the semifinals Friday.
Beekman starred for Virginia, racking up 15 points to go with five assists and a joint season-high five steals. Gardner added a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double while Franklin chipped in with 14 points.
But it was not just Beekman hounding North Carolina – the Cavaliers racked up eight blocks and eight steals on the night, holding their opponent under 60 points for the 14th time this season.
“Our defense is predicated, of course, on individual talent,” Bennett said. “But it’s really a helping each other defense. All you can do is make them earn – we made them earn most of the night and just took the challenge.”
The victory is undoubtedly a vital one for Virginia, who keeps their ACC Tournament hopes alive and sends a message to the NCAA Selection Committee about where they should be seeded next week. Currently sitting as a No. 4 seed, that number could change if results continue to fall their way Friday and beyond.
The Cavaliers will return Friday for a semifinal clash with Clemson. The game will tip off at 9:30 p.m. and is set to be broadcasted on ESPN.