After facing off just 10 days ago in Charlottesville, Virginia men’s basketball and Clemson squared off in the semifinals of the 2023 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday night. The No. 13 Cavaliers (25-6, 15-5 ACC) used a 21-2 run between the two halves to blow past the Tigers (23-10, 14-6 ACC) 76-56 and book their ticket to the ACC Championship game.
Virginia turned the ball over just six times Friday, winning the turnover battle over Clemson by a large margin and enabling them to attempt seven more field goals on the night. Coach Tony Bennett spoke on the team’s offensive discipline and effort after the game.
“I think the guys are taking care of the ball,” Bennett said. “They’re cutting hard, our screening has improved. They’re seeing things as the game presents itself.”
Coming into the game, the question loomed about whether or not Virginia would be able to slow the pace of the Clemson offense and force the Tigers to play at the Cavaliers’ speed.
It was Clemson who controlled the pace early on, forcing their quick-tempo offense on Virginia with two three-pointers courtesy of graduate student forward Hunter Tyson and graduate student guard Brevin Galloway. But the Cavaliers were able to keep pace thanks to a three-pointer from graduate student guard Kihei Clark, as the Tigers had an 8-7 lead at the under-16-minute media timeout.
The tempo of the game stayed fairly quick, but the Virginia offense used a 7-0 run and a 6-10 start from the field to grab a six-point lead at 16-10. The Cavaliers used a balanced effort on both sides of the ball to dictate much of the game’s first 10 minutes.
Another solid stretch of shots by Virginia paired with several misses by Clemson saw the Cavaliers’ lead grow to seven at 27-20.
The Virginia crowd inside Greensboro Coliseum was noticeably louder than the Clemson crowd, and after back-to-back possessions of more errant shots from the Tigers and impressive layups by senior guard Armaan Franklin, Clemson was forced to call a timeout amid roars from the Cavalier fans.
“I think [Franklin’s] finishing has improved as the year has gone on,” Bennett said. “He’s a strong, physical young man.”
Graduate student forward Jayden Gardner had his own set of back-to-back scores followed by a block by freshman guard Ryan Dunn on Galloway. Virginia’s traveling support only grew louder as the Cavaliers’ lead extended.
Clark failed to get up a shot before the first-half buzzer sounded in a rare lack of focus from the veteran guard. But even with the missed opportunity, the Cavaliers still led 37-25 after ending on an 8-0 run by Franklin and Gardner.
The Cavaliers dominated the first half on the offensive glass, grabbing seven rebounds en route to eight second chance points. The Tigers snared only two offensive rebounds for one second chance point. Virginia’s control inside was summed up by its 22 points in the paint, while Clemson managed just eight.
Virginia came out for the second period with similar energy to how they finished the first. Six straight points pushed the run to 14-0 and gave the Cavaliers an 18-point lead. Meanwhile, the Tigers looked flustered and out of sorts, missing their first four shots and turning the ball over twice.
Clemson tried to find their footing, but a flagrant one foul committed by sophomore forward Ben Middlebrooks on junior forward Kadin Shedrick and a technical foul to Clemson head coach Brad Brownell only added to the challenge. Coming back against a slow and methodical Virginia team with a double-digit lead looked almost impossible.
The Cavaliers reached the single bonus with 8:01 remaining in the contest after a Tyson foul on Gardner. This only thwarted any chances Clemson had at overcoming the deficit, and despite starting 2-6 from the charity stripe, Virginia went on to make six straight. The score stood at 61-43 after two Gardner free throws with about eight minutes remaining.
Despite closing the gap to 14 points with a few minutes to play, the Tigers were never able to make a sizable dent in the Cavaliers’ lead. A jumper from Gardner followed by a falling asleep celebration was a perfect image that summed up the night.
A series of “U-V-A” chants rang out from the crowd as the time expired and the final score stood at 76-56.
Gardner finished with a dominant 23 points and 12 rebounds while Franklin added 16 points himself. Virginia’s ball movement was impressive, dishing out 18 total assists while Clemson had just nine.
Without injured graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas, the reemergences of senior center Francisco Caffaro and Shedrick have been critical in the ACC Tournament. While not lighting up the box score, their impact in both offensive and defensive sets — doubling big men down low with Gardner or Dunn and establishing the pick-and-roll — has been noticeable and extremely effective. As the Cavaliers slowly move away from their midseason small-ball approach, both Caffaro and Shedrick will be crucial in the championship matchup against a Duke team that rosters a litany of impressive forwards.
With a chance to secure an ACC Tournament title Saturday night, Gardner spoke after the game about the opportunity to take on Duke.
“That’s another challenge that we’re going to have to answer,” Gardner said. “We have to meet their physicality and play Virginia basketball.”
Bennett added his own remarks about Saturday’s prospects, which he expects to be a tight affair.
“Excited to get to the finals,” Bennett said. “We know Duke’s playing very good basketball, and I think our guys are too.”
Virginia will face Duke in the final Saturday night in a game that is sure to be contentious — especially after the controversial ending to the Cavaliers’ 69-62 overtime win against the Blue Devils at home Feb. 11. The game will be streamed on ESPN and tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m.