Once upon a time when manual transmission automobiles were still a somewhat popular thing, you might hear someone joke ‘if you can’t find ‘em, grind ‘em’ when a novice was still figuring out how to drive with a stick shift. A similar sentiment might apply to the Virginia basketball team currently.
The Hoos have struggled to find any scoring punch offensively or much consistency defensively this season. It’s very much a work in progress each outing with starts and stops, smooth sailing and jerky sputtering all wrapped into one. The games visually match that grinding sound familiar to those days gone by.
That certainly was true for the final game of 2021 on Wednesday night at the John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers had a few moments where they seemed to hit the right gear for a couple of minutes, but most of the night was a mix of screeching and wheel spinning as Clemson romped to a 67-50 win. That sort of home loss for the Wahoos is as rare as a manual transmission sighting of late. The last time UVA lost by 17 points or more at home came more than 10 years ago in February of 2011 (Boston College won 63-44).
That snapped an 11-game losing streak in the series for the Tigers, who had lost eight straight in Charlottesville. It’s just the fourth loss to Clemson in Tony Bennett’s tenure.
“Obviously, the win feels great. It’s been a long time since I’ve had any success, and the first time I’ve won here,” Tigers coach Brad Brownell said. “First time in a long time we’ve beat those guys. I’ve got a ton of respect for the way they play and obviously how successful they are, the type of program they have. I mean, they do things at an extremely high level. It’s really hard to beat them. It’s a great challenge and so when you do finally get one like tonight, you’re really proud of your team because you know your team really had to execute and play well, and fortunately we were able to do it.”
Wednesday’s game followed the pattern of some earlier games this year for Virginia. The hosts fell behind early, spent a lot of time trying to catch up, made a second half run – albeit brief in this case – and fell in the end. The boxscore markers look similar as well. Too many turnovers, some key second chance points allowed, and some meager shooting numbers combined with inconsistent defense is not a winning formula.
This particular setback seemed to feature equal parts offensive and defensive issues.
Offensively, the Hoos shot just 36.6% (15-41) from the floor including 27.3% (6-22) from 3-point range. Reece Beekman had a strong performance with a career-high 20 points on 7-10 shooting (3-5 from 3-point range), but that came on a night when other regular scorers didn’t get going in the same way. Armaan Franklin landed in double figures with 13 points and 8 rebounds, but his struggles from downtown continued as he made just 1 of 7 attempts outside the arch. Jayden Gardner, fresh off a 29-point outing against Fairleigh Dickinson, had trouble finding much room to work on the interior as he finished with 9 points on 2-9 shooting. The Tigers doubled him and crowded him any time he touched the ball near the blocks.
“I feel like my teammates and my coaches always tell me stay aggressive, stay aggressive, knowing that we need that,” Beekman said. “That’s always the mindset coming in. Tonight, I just took what the defense gave me. Kihei and the others set me up pretty well tonight and always staying aggressive looking for my shot. That was the game plan coming in as always but today was just the night.”
Beyond those three players, UVA got little production. Starters Kihei Clark (6 points, 3 assists) and Kadin Shedrick (2 points, career-high 6 blocked shots) combined for 8 points on only 5 shot attempts to go with 7 combined turnovers. The Cavalier bench did not score and took only 4 shots. The team piled up 14 turnovers as Clemson ended up with 18 more shot attempts in the game. Only a good night at the free throw line (14-19 for Virginia vs. 3-8 for Clemson) helped offset that a little bit.
The best flurry offensively came during an 8-2 run to start the second half. Franklin and Clark sandwiched a pair of 3-pointers around a Beekman steal and dunk to cut the deficit to 37-35 with 17:34 to go. Following a Clemson timeout, however, Virginia scored just 10 more points over the next 15 minutes and the chances at a win withered away. The hosts had just two field goals in the final 17:34.
“I thought that Reece did a good job, obviously he got to the rim, hit a couple threes. He was good,” Bennett said. “Besides that, we didn’t get a lot. We need probably three or four guys to be chipping in and doing that, I see Armaan had some buckets there. We struggled from the three, they did a good job doubling [Jayden] Gardner and we got some good looks out of it. I was happy that Reece kind of attacked a little more and was more assertive and aggressive offensively.”
UVA didn’t have enough defense to weather the withering either. Clemson knocked down 47.5% (28-59) of its shots including 36.4% (8-22) of its 3-pointers in the game. The visitors had 12 assists, 22 points in the paint, 24 points off turnovers, and 8 second chance points in their win.
Hunter Tyson, PJ Hall, and David Collins all hit double figures for the Tigers. Tyson posted 17 points on 6-10 shooting (3-5 on 3’s) as he hurt the Hoos inside and outside the arc. Hall added 11 points and 7 rebounds, while Collins had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Clemson’s Naz Bohannon also took advantage of some bench matchups as he scored against Igor Milicic and Taine Murray in the post when they came into the game; Bohannon had 8 points on 4-6 shooting.
“He’s really improved, their big guy PJ Hall. And then [Hunter] Tyson, I don’t know if he’s a senior or if he isn’t, but they both can shoot the three,” Bennett said. “Paul has improved as a physical guy that can score, so we knew at times we need to run a double at him, but Tyson can also score inside.”
The loss dropped Virginia to 7-5 on the season and 1-1 in the ACC. UVA has lost three of its last five games with the two wins being an improbable comeback against Pittsburgh late and a gimme game against currently winless Fairleigh Dickinson.
Finding a path to better quality play and better results won’t come in friendly territory. The Cavaliers play six of their nine games in January on the road. That starts with a three-game road swing to kick off the 2022 portion of the schedule as they travel to Syracuse, Clemson, and North Carolina in the first eight days of the new year.
“You keep battling. Who knows? I’d be lying if I said, ‘Oh, absolutely’ [the pieces are there]. But you just keep working.” Bennett said. “I think we’ve played good stretches of basketball and we played some poor stretches of basketball, and that’s playing itself out and obviously in conference play, this was a team that competition stepped up. Maybe someone’s going to emerge as guys get more experienced, but never ever I said, ‘we’re going to find out in this room, do we have the group of guys we can go through adversity and then keep trying to grow from it? And just keep showing up and keep knocking?’ That’s all you can do in these spots. But can we get this turned around? Absolutely. You pursue that, and no matter what you just keep getting better. I can’t say, ‘We got this,’ and I can’t say, ‘No way.’ That’s just any coach and I can sit up here and talk all I want, but that’s reality. We take a few days off, we refresh, we enjoy the holidays with our family and friends, and then get back to work and see where we’re at and keep pursuing.”