Coming off of a two-game slide on the road, Virginia men’s basketball looked relieved and energized Tuesday when they returned to John Paul Jones Arena for a faceoff with Clemson. The No. 13 Cavaliers (22-6, 14-5 ACC) used a hot start to the second half to hold off the Tigers (21-9, 13-6 ACC) by a score of 64-57 and clinch a top-four seed, as well a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.
“It was far from perfect,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “But it was what we needed.”
The night started with a touching tribute and moment of silence for former men’s basketball head coach Terry Holland, who passed away Sunday. Holland helped establish Virginia’s men’s basketball program as one of the top in the country during a 16-year period at the helm.
When the game tipped, both offenses came out at a relative standstill. Neither the Cavaliers nor Tigers had a field goal through the first four and a half minutes until Clemson hit a three-pointer to make it 5-0 Tigers.
Virginia finally got on the board – after a nearly five-minute-long drought – with an alley-oop layup from freshman guard Ryan Dunn, courtesy of junior guard Reece Beekman. Dunn was fouled on the play and converted the free throw after the under-16 media timeout.
Fans hoped the elongated scoreless stretch was just the Cavaliers getting their offensive woes out of their system early, but Virginia’s 10-28 clip from the field in the opening period proved that would not exactly be the case.
However, Dunn’s alley-oop helped the Cavaliers erupt for a 12-2 run. A fastbreak Beekman dunk and triple got the Charlottesville crowd going, and savvy defense by Dunn and Beekman forced the Tigers to cough up the ball three times.
Dunn continued to inject life into the offense, nailing a three-pointer as the shot clock expired and then grabbing an offensive rebound for a putback layup to give the Cavaliers a 17-7 lead.
Junior center PJ Hall was pivotal in keeping Clemson in the game, as a banked three-pointer and a physical layup highlighted his 3-3 start from the field and helped keep John Paul Jones Arena somewhat quiet. The rest of the Tigers started just 2-14 – still enough to keep them in the game. At the under-eight-minute media timeout, Virginia led 19-15.
A back-and-forth nature existed for a few minutes as both teams traded punches. However, both teams began to lose their sharpness toward the end of the half, getting slightly careless with the ball. As Virginia led 28-23 at halftime, each team had six turnovers.
No player on either team reached double figures in the first half. Dunn led the Cavaliers with eight points on 3-3 shooting and added four rebounds while both Hall and graduate student forward Hunter Tyson put up seven points for the Tigers.
The second half started well for the Cavaliers, who were led by graduate student forward Jayden Gardner. The forward knocked down a mid-range jumper and spun in a layup through contact, flexing his muscles as cheers rained down from John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers kickstarted the second half in promising fashion, pairing several defensive stops with great offensive possessions. The positive passage of action gave the crowd numerous moments to cheer about and instilled a feeling that Virginia could be back on track.
A three-pointer and jumper – both of which hit nothing but net – from senior guard Armaan Franklin pushed the Virginia lead to 14 as the score sat at 41-27 with 12:45 remaining in the game. Franklin let out a roar after knocking down the jumper, again bringing the Cavaliers’ faithful to their feet.
While it felt like Virginia was pulling away, the Tigers refused to go down easily. Clemson hit four shots in a row before a three-pointer and jump shot from freshman guard Isaac McKneely, keeping them within striking distance at 46-36.
But McKneely continued his scoring with an and-one layup, giving him eight straight points for the Cavaliers.
As the game wound down, the Cavaliers had a seemingly-comfortable 10-point cushion. Despite the lead, graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas missed three free throws in a row and Tyson drained a three-pointer to make it 57-50 with 3:21 remaining.
Graduate student guard Kihei Clark hit three out of four free throws in the final two minutes, while a key steal by Beekman with 17 seconds remaining sealed the win.
For the Cavaliers, McKneely, Franklin and Gardner all tied for a team-high in points with 12 apiece while Dunn also poured in 10. Meanwhile, Beekman and Clark combined for 14 assists – eight from Beekman and six from Clark.
Hall and Tyson scored 36 of the Tigers’ 57 points, with Hall scoring 19 and Tyson adding 17.
In the end, Virginia’s pack line defense pulled through to compensate for continued offensive struggles. The effort on the latter end did improve, but Bennett will know there is more work to do before the Cavaliers can feel fully reassured about their chances at postseason success.
“At this time of the year, you’ll never be successful if you don’t sit down and guard and make people earn,” Bennett said. “Your offense can come and go, but the defense always has to be there.”
With the win, plus Pittsburgh’s loss to Notre Dame Wednesday, Virginia moved back into a three-way tie with Miami and the Panthers for first place in the ACC. The Cavaliers can clinch a share of the regular season title Saturday with a win against Louisville.
Virginia’s last regular-season game Saturday against Louisville will include senior day celebrations for several Cavaliers. Tip-off is set for 2 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2 and Virginia Sports Radio Network.