In search of its first NCAA Tournament victory in nearly four years, Virginia men’s basketball went toe-to-toe with Furman in the Round of 64 Thursday. Despite leading for much of the game, the No. 4 seeded Cavaliers (25-8, 15-5 ACC) fell 68-67 to the No. 13 seeded Paladins (28-7, 15-3 SoCon) thanks to a game-winning three-pointer with two seconds remaining.
Coach Tony Bennett offered his thoughts on the game, emphasizing the agony of a disappointing result that so nearly went the other way for Virginia.
“You feel like ‘We got it, we got it’, and then all of a sudden in a moment’s notice it changes at the end,” Bennett said. “That’s tough.”
Despite the defeat, Bennett saw an outstanding performance from junior forward Kadin Shedrick. After not having started a game in over two months, Bennett inserted the junior into the first five after multiple impressive efforts in the ACC Tournament. Shedrick repaid Bennett’s faith in grand fashion, totaling 15 points, a season-high 13 rebounds and four blocks.
“I thought he [Shedrick] played terrific,” Bennett said. I thought Kadin really responded, stuck his free throws and played good, tough basketball. I was happy for him and proud of him.”
Shedrick was critical for Virginia right from the jump, swatting a layup attempt from junior forward Garrett Hien and converting on his own layup inside. That was the story for the Cavaliers throughout the first half, as all 13 of Virginia’s first-period field goals came from inside the three-point arc.
Despite not connecting on a triple in the opening 20 minutes, the Cavaliers never trailed before heading for the break. Graduate student forward Jayden Gardner got Virginia going with two early baskets, and when the Cavaliers’ defense inevitably turned up the heat, they only continued to pull away from Furman.
The lead grew as large as 10 following a layup by freshman guard Ryan Dunn with 11:15 to play, and even after a serious push from the Paladins that brought the score to 23-22, Virginia stopped the bleeding before the tide turned completely.
Junior guard Reece Beekman aided the Cavaliers in that task, hitting multiple tough shots to emphasize an 8-0 run that sent Virginia up 31-22 with 2:34 remaining.
Although Furman clawed back within five, Virginia was given a big lift late in the half when graduate student guard Mike Bothwell — Furman’s leading scorer on the season — picked up his third foul and was forced to exit.
The Cavaliers wasted no time building on their advantage as the second half got underway. A layup by graduate student guard Kihei Clark put Virginia up 42-30 with 15:22 to play.
The Paladins never let things get completely out of hand, but back-to-back treys by freshman guard Isaac McKneely undid the work of an 8-2 Furman run and restored the Cavaliers’ lead to 12 points as the clock ticked under 12 minutes.
However, seemingly all at once, things started to slip away from the Cavaliers. The Paladins merged into a 1-3-1 zone that gave Virginia all kinds of problems on offense, as the Cavaliers scored just four points across the next seven minutes of action.
“The zone kind of slowed us down a bit, took us out of our rhythm,” Beekman said. “I feel like that was a turning point in the game for them and they executed that pretty well.”
On the other end, graduate student forward Jalen Slawson began to take over the game for Furman. After a couple of triples brought the Paladins within four, Slawson poured in nine consecutive points to send Furman into a 57-54 lead. The advantage was the Paladins’ first of the game, coming just five minutes from the end of regulation.
The teams traded baskets in the next passage, but a putback layup and a pair of free throws from Shedrick gave Virginia the lead once again. After a free throw from Clark put the Cavaliers up four points with under 20 seconds remaining, it looked like Virginia was ready to advance.
The Paladins made two shots from the charity stripe to cut the deficit to two, but the Cavaliers still had a chance to seal the game with clutch free-throw shooting on the other end.
Extraordinarily, they never got that chance. Clark was trapped in the corner by two Furman players after receiving a pass from Beekman. The graduate student heaved the ball down the floor in the hopes that it would fall into the hands of a Cavalier.
It all went wrong after the ball left Clark’s hand. Hien picked off the pass with seven seconds remaining and quickly moved the ball up the floor to sophomore guard JP Pegues, who promptly nailed a three-pointer to put the Paladins up one with two seconds to play.
Bennett immediately called timeout to set up a potential game-winning play, but Beekman’s long-range effort clanged off the backboard as time expired. Virginia had been upset in the first round for the third time in its last four tournament appearances.
Although the Cavaliers could not have pictured a more nightmarish finish to this season, Bennett has faith that only good will come from the situation.
“You get to choose how to respond, and over time it’ll all be ok,” Bennett said. “I know that.”
The defeat is a gutting one to take for the Cavaliers and their fans alike, but it will hurt especially for Virginia’s departing athletes of which there will be many. The list will certainly include graduate students Gardner, Clark and forward Ben Vander Plas, while Franklin, Beekman, senior center Francisco Caffaro and senior guard Chase Coleman will likely be on their way out as well.
It will not be easy for anyone to get over Thursday’s proceedings, but the attention will soon have to turn toward next season. The expectations of a highly dominant team will remain, and in the wake of yet another disappointing postseason exit, pressure may begin to mount on the program if things do not change come next March.