In a close 66-65 victory, Virginia men’s basketball barely scraped by a talented Clemson squad. Leading by as many as 12 points early in the second half, foul trouble and poor free throw shooting nearly handed the Tigers (14-7, 4-6 ACC) the win. Clemson, ranked as high as No. 13 in December, had not won back-to-back games in the new year and were coming off of a home victory over Louisville, while the Cavaliers (17-5, 8-3 ACC) had won five straight after their own midwinter slump.
Clemson won the opening tip-off, but started off cold from the field, missing their first four shots. Sophomore guard Ryan Dunn put Virginia on the board with a single foul shot, and senior guard Reece Beekman added to their total with a 20-foot jump shot. The Tigers opened their account with an inside and-one from junior forward Ian Schieffelin, but sophomore guard Isaac McKneely responded for the Cavaliers with a floater in the lane.
On their next possession, Clemson graduate wing Joseph Girard sank a long three-point attempt. Sophomore guard Andrew Rohde tried to respond with a three-pointer of his own, but came up short, allowing Clemson to turn defense into offense and hit a layup to extend their lead to 8-5. Beekman then drove to the hoop to add two points for the Cavaliers, then stole the ball off Clemson on back-to-back possessions to generate a dunk for Dunn and two free throws for himself.
After the game’s first TV timeout, Clemson milked two points out of a possession that involved four shots and took nearly 50 seconds. The teams traded failed possessions, then Virginia’s senior forward Jacob Groves nailed a corner three-pointer and Clemson’s senior center PJ Hall got his first points, overpowering graduate forward Jordan Minor on the inside.
Beekman found Groves for a three-pointer at the top of the arc, then freshman forward Blake Buchanan hit a tough turnaround shot in the lane to extend Virginia’s lead to 23-16. After a Clemson miss and a Dunn block, Buchanan pulled down an offensive rebound and found Beekman for a layup. Beekman also scored the Cavaliers’ next points, converting from midrange and forcing Clemson to take a timeout with 5 minutes and 33 seconds to play in the first half.
The Tigers fought back after the stoppage. Clemson drained three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to cut the lead to 5, and Virginia failed to get anything out of a possession with four missed shots. Another Clemson layup made the score 27-24, and Virginia was forced to take a timeout with two minutes left in the half after missing six consecutive shots.
McKneely hit a stepback two-point shot to get the Cavaliers out of the rut, then Groves hit a stepback of his own after Beekman stole the ball from Girard. Clemson then got another basket, but smart clock management from Groves gave Virginia the final shot of the half. Beekman dribbled until the clock was under 10 seconds, swung the ball to Groves in the corner where he launched a three-pointer that went in as time expired. Groves ended the half with 13 points — 3-4 on three-pointers — and Virginia went to the locker room up 34-28. Minor was held scoreless in the first half, but contributed 7 rebounds and played lockdown defense on Hall, the Tigers’ leading scorer.
The Cavaliers started the second half strong, with Minor cleaning up a Dunn miss and manufacturing a jump shot for Groves for the half’s first points. A Clemson miss turned into a McKneely layup, and Virginia led by 12, the largest gap of the game.
However, the Tigers quickly began to whittle away at the lead. Schieffelin nailed a three-pointer, then senior guard Chase Hunter notched a fast break layup. Beekman fed McKneely for a midrange jump shot to make the score 40-31, and the lead stayed at 9 after two Schieffelin free throws were balanced out by Minor beating Hall in the post for his first points of the game. Clemson then scored five straight points in quick succession, three coming from Hall free throws as he started to gain traction.
Virginia began to foul ad nauseum, sending Clemson to the line a total of 12 times over the final ten minutes. After Beekman and Hall traded shots, McKneely sent Hunter to the line, where he made a pair of free throws. Girard then hit a game-tying three-pointer. Minor, playing only in spurts to avoid fouling out, made a layup but then gave up a three-pointer to Hall, giving the Tigers their first lead since the opening minutes of the game.
A foul on Groves gave the Tigers another free throw, and a foul on Dunn gave them two more with a minute to play. Up just two points, Minor missed a layup, but Dunn followed up strongly to increase the lead to four at the 30-second mark. Out of a Clemson timeout, Hall missed a layup and the Tigers were forced to foul. However, Groves missed his foul shot, and Minor fouled Hall as he shot a three-pointer with seven and a half seconds left, sending Clemson to the line for three free throws and getting himself removed from the game.
Hall sank all three free throws, getting the game to 66-65. Junior guard Dante Harris had a chance to ice the game for the Cavaliers, but he missed his first free throw, giving the Tigers one final shot. Senior guard Jack Clark got a clean look at the top of the key and fired, but the ball hit the back of the rim and bounced away as the buzzer sounded. Virginia escaped by the skin of their teeth, 66-65. Minor’s defense, Groves’ offense and overall gritty play have been crucial. Notably, the team’s rising contributors have been crucial towards the team’s recent surge off the bench.
“We almost have three guys [Minor, Murray, and Harris] that weren’t playing in that stretch [of road losses] early on,” said Coach Tony Bennett after the game. “I think, as every new team does, you settle in, and it doesn’t guarantee success, but you get closer to your identity.”
The Cavaliers, now second in the ACC, will look to keep the good times rolling Monday night, when they return to John Paul Jones Arena to host Miami. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. and is set to be broadcast on ESPN.