Virginia took on Texas Southern in their third home game of the season Thursday night. The offense struggled at times to find scoring, but the Cavaliers (4-0, 0-0 ACC) turned in a vintage defensive performance to hold the Tigers (0-3, 0-0 SWAC) to just 14 first half points in a 62-33 victory. In the absence of sophomore guard Isaac McKneely, Coach Bennett opted to start junior guard Dante Harris for what was his first start in a Virginia uniform.
The Cavaliers began the night cold, going one-for-three from behind the arc and finding their only other points at the stripe courtesy of a foul on sophomore guard Ryan Dunn. The defense stepped up when the offense was in the gutter, however, and the Cavaliers were able to force the shot clock down to its waning seconds multiple times. With just five minutes off of the clock, the score was 5-4 and Virginia took an early timeout to regroup.
Graduate forward Jake Groves came out of the stoppage and immediately contributed a successful drive to the rim along the baseline. On the other end, Dunn intercepted a pass to lead a two-on-one opportunity on the other end, but Harris tossed it off the glass for a half-layup-half-lob in a laughable maneuver that resulted in a turnover.
After this miscue, the Cavalier offense began to take charge, with senior guard Reece Beekman and redshirt freshman guard Leon Bond III making consecutive attacks to the rim for four points. Beekman then added another two off of a mid-range jumper and made a rebound that resulted in a foul off of another alley-oop attempt aimed for Dunn. After he made both shots, Virginia led 15-7 with 9:28 remaining.
It seemed that Dunn had not forgotten coming down hard to the floor because, on the next possession, Dunn brought the crowd to raptures as he proceeded to jump over a defender on his way to a flying one-handed jam. His exploits did not stop there, as he compiled two blocks and a three-pointer from the corner before the half came to a close.
Beekman followed in a similar vein, adding two blocks, a rebound, and a conversion on a strong take to the rim. At halftime, the Cavaliers held the advantage in a low-scoring 26-14 game.
The beginning of the second half was all about freshman forward Blake Buchanan. The freshman forward came out of halftime and did not waste time making his presence known on both ends. He made a block on Texas Southern’s first possession, made one of two at the line after a dunk attempt and then converted on another and-one opportunity when he made a ferocious two-handed dunk from the baseline following an offensive rebound from Dunn.
The young big man did not stop there, getting a steal and a tremendous chasedown block. On the next defensive possession, Dunn answered with a powerful block of his own. The Cavaliers would finish with a combined 23 “stocks” on the night — steals and blocks combined.
Despite tremendous pressure on the defensive end, struggles from beyond the three-point line continued to plague the Cavaliers. Up to that point, Virginia had made only one three-pointer in the half, a wide-open look from Harris. While it struggled from deep, it decided to dominate the interior and the fast break. A steal by sophomore guard Andrew Rohde led to a transition dunk by Bond, and then Bond got a steal of his own and failed to convert a second dunk attempt by misstepping and throwing the ball haphazardly at the glass.
A flashy pass by Rohde then allowed Dunn to draw a foul on the inside and hit both free throws. Another highlight play then came at the hands of Groves, who went up for a putback layup, making it and drawing a hard foul on what would be a three-point play.
The last few minutes of the game did not offer much in the way of excitement, and Virginia cruised to a 62-33 victory. For the Cavaliers, this game proved that their youth and athleticism could offer more positives than negatives. Dunn offered a more well-rounded game than any he has played so far in his collegiate career and young guys like Buchanan showed just what they can do when the spotlight is on them.
And what the Cavaliers lost in inefficiencies from beyond the arc — they shot just 31.3 percent for the game — they made up for at the free throw line, and one of the main contributors to this effort was, to no surprise, Dunn.
“I’ve been trying to get confidence in my free throw game,” Dunn said. “Just stepping to the line to shoot those shots and being okay with missing some, but I am glad that it is coming to fruition.”
The Cavaliers will look to build on this momentum as they prepare themselves for the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off, with their first game coming against a strong Wisconsin team Monday at Fort Myers. All games for the event will be aired on FS1.