Virginia men’s basketball opened ACC play for the 2023-24 season by demolishing Syracuse 84-62 Saturday at home. The Cavaliers (7-1, 1-0 ACC) went 12-21 from beyond the arc and forced the Orange (5-3, 0-1 ACC) to commit 14 turnovers. Sophomore guard Isaac McKneely led the way for Virginia, scoring 22 points on 11 shots and playing solid on ball defense against Syracuse’s sophomore guard J.J Starling.
Syracuse won the opening tip, but the stingy Virginia defense forced a stop on their first possession. However, the Orange would score on their next two trips up the floor on a dunk from junior center Naheem McLeod and a three-pointer from sophomore forward Chris Bell.
Virginia finally got on the board with a free throw from graduate forward Jacob Groves, and senior guard Reece Beekman added a 5-foot jumper moments later. McKneely sank a short jumper to tie the game back out of a media timeout, then grabbed a rebound on the next possession, and pushed the ball up to Beekman for a tough layup in traffic.
Starling and McKneely traded three-pointers on the following possessions, then Syracuse’s sophomore guard and Charlottesville native Justin Taylor sank a three-pointer on his hometown court to give the Orange back the lead at 11-10. Freshman guard Elijah Gertrude drew a foul and gave the Cavaliers back the lead with a pair of free throws, which were then equaled by sophomore forward Maliq Brown for Syracuse.
The game’s back-and-forth nature would start to wane as the crowd got involved — Gertrude slammed home a fast break jam off a Beekman feed, lighting a fire under the fans in John Paul Jones Arena. A minute later, McKneely swished his second three-pointer of the night from way downtown to keep the crowd roaring.
The teams kept the game close, with Virginia up 19-18 with six minutes to play in the half. However, the Cavaliers would start a tear after that. Great ball movement opened up McKneely for another three, then sophomore guard Andrew Rohde stole the ball at half court and finished a transition layup. Syracuse called timeout but had their inbounds play foiled by a block by sophomore guard Ryan Dunn that Beekman turned into two foul shots on the other end.
Syracuse’s star player — sophomore guard Judah Mintz — hit a free throw for his first point of the night after being shadowed by Beekman most of the first half. Mintz would then sink another shot between inside shots for Rohde and Beekman falling, but struggled overall with the Cavalier defense, scoring just five points.
“Reese is a very good individual defender,” Coach Tony Bennett said after the game. “But we talked about it before the game you know, it's not Reese or whoever's matched up on Judah, it's us versus him and we must make it tough. He’s so good at drawing fouls and making moves and we just tried to you know, we said own the lane, jam the lane.”
Syracuse converted another lone free throw, then were called for travels on consecutive possessions. McKneely fed redshirt freshman guard Leon Bond III for a ferocious dunk that brought the crowd to its feet, then knocked down a deep three to cap a 19-4 Virginia run. Syracuse would add a Mintz layup in the final seconds to for an intermission score of 37-24 with Cavaliers on top. McKneely’s 16 in the first half led all scorers, and Virginia had the edge in rebounds, turnovers and assists.
The Orange started the second half with the ball but missed their first shot, opening up Groves for a layup on the other end. Starling responded by attacking McKneely for a layup of his own, but Virginia again responded, this time with Beekman scooping the ball in for two.
Syracuse briefly began abusing the size matchup between the 6-foot-9 Groves and the 7-foot-4 McLeod in the post, with the junior center sinking both free throws after getting fouled then hitting a short jumper the next time down the floor.
However, Virginia’s hot jump shooting continued as Rohde and Dunn jumpers kept the Orange at a distance. Starling hit two more penetration layups while targeting McKneely, but Beekman assisted Groves and Rohde three-pointers, extending the lead to 17.
This kicked off a total onslaught of Cavalier shooting. Dunn recovered a loose ball under the Virginia basket and fed McKneely for a long three-pointer. McKneely then struck again with a heat check from nearly 30 feet out. Dunn nailed a floater. Bond finished a McKneely lob off an inbounds pass from under the hoop. All of a sudden, Virginia led by over 20 points.
“The extra shots [this summer] definitely helped and I feel like I'm just shooting it with more confidence this year,” McKneely said after the game. He would finish 6-8 from three, adding 2 assists and 5 boards.
Syracuse tried to stem the flow with a three-pointer, but freshman forward Blake Buchanan hit two free throws and senior guard Taine Murray buried a corner three-pointer. Gertrude found Beekman for his own corner three-pointer, and suddenly, Virginia led by 32.
Syracuse would claw back four points over the next minute, but the Cavaliers responded with a thunderous dunk from Buchanan and a Murray steal and three-pointer in transition to open the lead up to a high-water mark of 33 points.
The Orange would go on a 10-0 run against the Virginia reserves over the next four minutes, but the damage was done. The home crowd lost its mind for the introductions of fan-favorite walk-ons — junior guard Bryce Walker and senior forward Tristan How — in the final moments, but JPJ began to empty out as both teams entered the bonus and the game turned into a free throw contest. How scored a floater with 30 seconds to play, and Syracuse scored the final basket to make the final score 82-41. Syracuse Coach Adrian Autry commented on Virginia’s impressive shooting after the game.
“The second half, you know, we didn't make much of a game, and they played really well,” Autry said. “Obviously, our defense wasn't strong enough. And you know, we did some other things, but the game was just kind of out of reach for us.”
The Cavaliers showed their ceiling in the ACC opener, especially on the offensive side. If McKneely can continue to be the sharpshooter from the outside and Groves can hold his own rebounding the ball, Virginia suddenly becomes an extremely difficult out in a conference that has disappointed at the top.
The Cavaliers will continue their homestand Tuesday against North Carolina Central. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m., and the game will be streamed on ESPN+ and ACC Network Extra.