Virginia basketball’s defense proved too much for No. 14 Texas A&M Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers (6-1, 0-0 ACC) totaled eight blocks and eight steals against the Aggies (6-2, 0-0 SEC) to pick up a win in their first contest against a ranked opponent. Sophomore guard Ryan Dunn led the way on defense with five blocks and three steals, while sophomore guard Andrew Rohde showed out on offense with 13 points and three three-pointers.
Graduate student forward Jake Groves, who made his third start of the season, opened up the game’s scoring with a mid-range jumper.
“I didn't know I was going to be in the starting lineup until about 45 minutes before the game,” Groves said. “It's one of the things where you just stay ready.”
After the Aggies responded with a bucket of their own, sophomore guard Isaac McKneely hit two threes to make the score 8-2. McKneely came into Wednesday’s game shooting 55% from deep. Virginia entered the first TV timeout up 8-4 with both of Texas A&M’s buckets coming off of second-chance opportunities.
Star junior guard Wade Taylor IV showed up after the break, making a layup and a three-pointer after airballing his first attempt. Dunn kept the Cavalier offense going with a three of his own, followed by a dunk off of a backdoor cut to make the score 13-9.
With redshirt junior Dante Harris out due to a rolled ankle in practice, freshman guard Elijah Gertrude burned his redshirt and saw his first minutes of the season with 11:48 left in the half. His presence was felt right away, flying in for a rebound on the ensuing defensive possession. Coach Tony Bennett mentioned that the idea was discussed even before Harris’s injury.
“Of course, burning the redshirt was discussed thoroughly with Elijah and his parents. And he was like, ‘Heck, yeah,’” Bennett said.
After turnovers from both teams, senior guard Reece Beekman found a clear lane for an easy driving layup. Texas A&M’s senior forward Henry Coleman III got his own layup on the next possession, closing the Virginia lead to 20-15 with just under eight minutes left in the half. Coleman III, a Virginia native, collected seven offensive rebounds in the contest.
After a media timeout, the Aggies went on an 8-2 run to take their first lead of the night 23-22. In a series of miscues, Beekman fouled Taylor on a three-point attempt, and Taylor made all three free throws. The Aggies then started their full-court press — after creating a turnover off of a bad pass from Rohde, the Cavaliers were called for a 10-second violation on their next offensive possession.
Dunn stopped the Aggies’ momentum at the end of the half. With under two minutes, the sophomore blocked a shot—one of five he had Wednesday night. He then knocked down a three, giving the Cavaliers a 27-26 lead going into halftime.
As expected, Texas A&M dominated the boards by collecting seven offensive rebounds to Virginia’s two in the first half. The Cavaliers shot 42.3 percent from the field to their opponent’s 37 percent, despite their bench contributing zero points.
The Cavaliers dominated the opening minutes of the second half, going on a 7-0 run from two Beekman layups and a Groves three-pointer. Taylor IV airballed his second shot of the night, much to the student section’s delight. Averaging 20 points per game on the season, Taylor IV finished with nine points.
The Aggies’ defensive pressure forced several tough possessions, but shots were falling the Cavaliers’ way. Late in the shot clock, Rohde fired a deep contested three-pointer that found nylon after hitting the backboard. Virginia led 37-28.
Although Texas A&M won the rebound battle in the second half, Groves frustrated their bigs. In back-to-back defensive rebound attempts, Groves found a way to tip the ball off an Aggie and out of bounds for a Virginia offensive rebound.
“My job is just to maybe not get the rebound myself but make sure they don't get the rebound,” Groves said. “So I was just pushing and paddling, shoving guys around.”
Coming out of a TV timeout with 11:16 left in the game and up 41-32, Virginia turned the ball over for the fourth straight possession. With the shot clock winding down, Gertrude airballed a three-pointer that led to a shot-clock violation. The Aggies inched back 41-36.
Despite the offensive woes from Virginia, Texas A&M had it worse. The Aggies shot 24.1% from the field and 16.7% from deep in the second half, collecting 21 points. Beekman collected two blocks and three steals and slowed down Taylor throughout the game.
“Number two [Beekman] is an NBA defender. I think everybody knows that,” Texas A&M Coach Buzz Williams said. “And number 13 [Dunn] is real close.”
After Groves and Coleman III connected on buckets, Virginia connected on two late-shot-clock buckets to put the game out of reach. Junior guard Taine Murray found Groves for a layup as the shot clock hit zero. Similarly, Rohde hit a three-pointer late in the next Virginia offensive possession to put his team up 55-41.
The Aggies scored six points in the last five minutes, in large part to Ryan Dunn. Within three minutes, Dunn blocked four Aggie shots to blow the roof off of John Paul Jones.
“It's amazing having the crowd from the jump,” Dunn said. “From the starting lineups, you can hear them. It’s a different type of roar.”
The Aggies pulled the game within eight with just over two minutes to go, but Beekman went a perfect 4-for-4 to put the game out of reach. Virginia won 59-47.
Entering tonight’s matchup, the Aggies ranked first in the nation in offensive rebound differential, while the Cavaliers ranked 353rd out of 361 Division 1 teams. Texas A&M won the battle of the boards Wednesday night — totaling 18 offensive rebounds to Virginia’s seven — but Bennett had the team prepared for that possibility.
“We just almost braced ourselves for the fact they're gonna get some. If we can make them reset, then we'll guard them again,” Tony Bennett said. “You just kind of got to bend but don’t break.”
Virginia had zero bench points Wednesday night. With Harris — who came off the bench in five contests — injured, Bennett will have to find role players off the bench to spark the offense. Yet all five of Virginia's starters logged over 30 minutes and showed no signs of slowing down late in the second half. While this style of play worked against a good team in the Aggies, not every opponent Virginia faces will shoot only 17 percent from beyond the arc, so the Cavaliers will likely need more offensive production in the future.
Virginia is back in action Saturday at home against Syracuse at noon, which will continue the four-game homestand. The game will be streamed on ESPN2.