Virginia basketball returned to action at home Tuesday, as the Cavaliers (8-1, 1-0 ACC) took on NC Central. Another efficient performance from Virginia left the Eagles (4-6, 0-0 MEAC) without answers for much of the night, and the 77-47 outcome was never in doubt.
Coach Tony Bennett opted for a starting lineup consisting of senior guard Reece Beekman, sophomore guards Andrew Rohde, Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn and graduate student forward Jake Groves. Over the past two games, Groves had provided a more offensive-focused gameplan for Virginia, and the move certainly paid off in this game.
One Cavalier led from the very start, and that player was McKneely. Coming off of a career performance against Syracuse Saturday, McKneely proceeded to knock down his first four three-point attempts to force the Eagles into an early timeout down 12-4. A quick steal by Beekman allowed him to glide easily to the rim for two. McKneely then flashed his slashing brilliance as well, snatching a pass from Dunn at the top of the key and converting on a reverse layup underneath the basket.
For all of the offensive firepower on display, the brute force in the paint courtesy of sophomore forward Perry Smith Jr. proved particularly formidable for the Cavalier defense. He scored six of the Eagles’ first 13 points with relative ease. Fortunately for Virginia, intense pressure around the arc provided the Cavaliers with a lot of scoring opportunities on the other end, including an acrobatic layup and an electrifying one-handed jam by freshman guard Elijah Gertrude to grow the lead to 25-13.
Late in the half, redshirt freshman guard Leon Bond III made his presence known on both ends of the floor, adding six points, two ferocious blocks and two rebounds. Beekman corralled a rebound of his own, which led to two points for him at the basket. He then jarred the ball loose on the ground, resulting in a fast break and a two-handed dunk from Dunn.
In one example of exceptional court vision, a driving Groves whipped a pass from the shoulder to Dunn, cutting from the wing to the basket for an easy layup. Bond continued his stellar all-around performance, adding a conversion from beyond the arc and assisting one as well, making a pass to Gertrude in the corner for another successful three-pointer.
After an offensive barrage unlike the Cavaliers have facilitated all season, the score was 41-17 at halftime. A two-handed block off the glass by Dunn that was originally ruled a goaltend was overturned during the break, increasing the lead to a more-than-ample 24 points. McKneely and company showed no signs of slowing down either.
Beekman started off the half by contributing his own layup and making a string of excellent passes, getting the ball to Dunn for a fast break dunk, Groves for an alley-oop layup and McKneely for yet another successful three-pointer. NC Central was forced to take a timeout when the Cavaliers hit the 50-point threshold with a 30-point advantage.
Gertrude, McKneely and Bond all made impressive fadeaway jumpers in the middle of the half. McKneely then made his sixth shot behind the arc on a dish from Bond, one that put him over the 20-point mark for a second straight contest.
Another spark was lit by freshman forward Blake Buchanan, who made use of his extensive playing time in the second half with a block and a quick four points on offense. The Cavaliers began to slow down their offense once the result became unavoidable, and a powerful dunk by Buchanan became the only real highlight from the remaining six minutes of the game, as the benches emptied on both sides in an eventual 77-47 victory.
Although many Cavaliers provided more than their fair share in the victory, all of John Paul Jones Arena had their eyes on McKneely and his career-high 22 points. The sophomore shot 75 percent from three-point range, and does not show any signs of stopping.
“He’s an alien, like, he is not from here,” Gertrude said in the postgame presser.
The sophomore guard is second in the NCAA in three-point percentage and his stock is only growing as he continues to build on hot streak after hot streak. This Virginia team is built differently, as the focus is playing slightly faster and using the athleticism and shooting of the team to overwhelm smaller matchups. When the Cavaliers are operating at 100 percent, the team could very well be the best in the conference.
Virginia will have an 11-day break for finals before returning to the floor for a matchup against Northeastern Dec. 16 in hopes of stretching its record to 9-1 to begin the season. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m., and the game will be televised on ACC Network.