A new-look Virginia squad took on Tarleton State Monday in the much-awaited home opener to the 2023-24 campaign. The Cavaliers (1-0, 0-0 ACC) came out on fire, shooting nearly 50 percent from three en route to a comfortable 80-50 victory over the Texans (0-1, 0-0 WAC).
Coach Tony Bennett opted for a starting lineup with three familiar faces in sophomore guards Ryan Dunn and Isaac McKneely as well as senior Reece Beekman. Accompanying them were two new additions, Oklahoma transfer forward Jake Groves and St. Thomas transfer guard Andrew Rohde — Groves is a graduate student and Rohde a sophomore.
The Cavaliers got off to a hot start from beyond the arc, with Dunn and Rohde making two quick three-pointers to start play and McKneely making two of his own to help Virginia jump out to an early 16-8 lead. Beekman immediately put pressure on the Texan offense, getting two early steals, one resulting in a strong two-handed jam on the other end.
Freshman forward Blake Buchanan was the first to come off the bench for Virginia, followed shortly thereafter by redshirt freshman Leon Bond III and redshirt junior guard Dante Harris. Based on the minutes allotted throughout the game, it seems as though the first eight players on the court for the Cavaliers will make up the bulk of the rotation this year.
The arena collectively gasped when Bond went up and came down hard to the floor, drawing the foul and converting on both of his free throw attempts. During the stoppage, Dante Harris saw his first action of the season, replacing Beekman and quickly making an impact with pressure on the defensive end.
Beekman then contributed a highlight moment upon his return to the court, making an unbelievable find and delivering the ball to a cutting junior guard Taine Murray, who made the layup high off the glass. On the other end, Harris’ face took the brunt of an ugly offensive foul that required a timeout with the Cavaliers up 23-11.
In the middle of the first half, the Cavalier offense went cold, with a Bond offensive rebound and putback being the only thing of note among possessions that looked rushed and ran the shot clock down to a minimum. On the defensive side of the ball, however, Tarleton State struggled to make any headway into the deficit and even gave up a shot clock violation after a particularly wayward possession.
McKneely revitalized the Cavalier offense, making two free throws off of a foul and then cashing in on an opportunity from behind the arc courtesy of a Beekman pass from the top of the key. Beekman brought the half to a close with two spectacular plays, an acrobatic layup with a foul and a powerful take to the rim at the buzzer to give the Cavaliers a 43-19 lead at halftime.
The second half began just as the first, with an early three-point barrage. McKneely and Groves each converted an attempt within the first three minutes of the half. Freshman forward Blake Buchanan then committed an offensive foul but redeemed himself at the other end with a spectacular block off the glass. As the dust settled at the under-16 media timeout, the Cavaliers maintained a 51-27 advantage.
Virginia ran into foul trouble in the middle of the half, giving up two fouls on successful layup attempts and allowing the Texans to come within 20 points of the lead. Virginia quickly regained momentum on the back of two consecutive three-pointers from Groves. Rohde also tacked on his own three-pointers from deep. Before long, the Cavaliers had jumped out to a 68-40 lead with just under eight minutes left in the game.
An errant three-point attempt followed by a ferocious putback dunk by Bond proved to be the exclamation point on the game, as Virginia cruised from that point onward to a dominant 80-50 victory.
For the Cavaliers, last night’s game was a testing ground for a new system and an opportunity for new players to get used to the bright lights — there were some areas for improvement that will surely be under scrutiny going into Friday’s matchup against Florida. One such issue was the lack of consistency from the stripe.
The Cavaliers made just over 60 percent of their free throws, far below the number that one would want to see from a team that already appears to prioritize strong defensive play. Coach Bennett was not worried, however, and sought to shed light on the positives.
“I told them after that I’m really glad that you got to the line that many times,” Bennett said. “That’s important, being in those spots and getting big-game reps at the free throw line.”
Inconsistencies and all, the Cavaliers will look to build on what was a dominant victory as they look towards their first major opponent of the season against Florida. The game is scheduled to tip-off at 7 p.m. in Charlotte, N.C., and will be televised on the ACC Network.