Early in the second half of its season opener Monday night, the Virginia men’s basketball team saw a 10-point lead evaporate in a flash. With that came flashbacks.
UVA players said they had to fight through memories of last season when second half shakiness led to losses, including the 2021 season opener against Navy. The response in 2022, however, was both swift and successful. Just seconds after North Carolina Central took the lead, the Hoos bounced right back in front and rebuilt the double-digit advantage that had so quickly vanished. The Eagles never really threatened again as the Cavaliers pulled away to a 73-61 win at the John Paul Jones Arena.
“They took the lead, and part of me was just hoping this wasn’t last year all over again,” Virginia center Kadin Shedrick said. “We all just realized we had to lock in at that moment and we couldn’t let them continue to build momentum. The crowd stayed in it, which we all really appreciated, and we stayed in it too. We played hard and we were able to pull away which was really good. I’m not sure if last year’s team would’ve been able to do that early in the season, so that’s an area where we’ve improved.”
“I honestly do think we wouldn’t have responded how we did tonight,” UVA guard Armaan Franklin said.
The Wahoos wasted little time dwelling in the past even if it crossed their minds briefly. North Carolina Central knocked down a pair of 3-pointers along with three layups to rally from a 40-30 deficit at the 18:48 mark of the second half. The last of the layups came from Eric Boone, who put his team ahead 44-43 with 14:21 remaining. Boone finished with 18 points, while Justin Wright led his team with 20 on 7-13 shooting.
That lead lasted all of 17 seconds. On the ensuing possession, senior Kihei Clark put down a 3-pointer to vault Virginia back into the lead. That jumpstarted a 15-2 run over a 3:54 span that regrew the lead to 58-46. During that stretch, Reece Beekman got a steal, a slam, and a 3-pointer. Francisco Caffaro posted a dunk, Ben Vander Plas made a 3-pointer, and Shedrick added a layup.
Following that flurry, the Eagles only got as close as 6 again. The Cavaliers led by double digits for the final 8 minutes.
“I thought they responded well,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I think having some more options off the bench and guys digging in and making some tough plays. … But North Carolina Central [and us], those are two older teams playing, they’re very old and their athleticism was real. Their pressure on the ball and being in passing lanes, they got us a little bit standing around. Again, they’re a veteran team with some good, physical athleticism and they played hard and made some shots. … It was a good response when we got a little shaky, you’re right. It’s nice to see a couple shots go down and get to the free throw line a lot. Credit to NC Central for making us work. They played hard and they didn’t back down on both ends. They were aggressive.”
The stretch that essentially sealed it for UVA captured the key storylines from the performance. Multiple players contributed. All but one bucket – the steal and jam from Beekman – came from an assist. The Hoos knocked down a trio of 3’s. Each of those things translated to the overall themes.
Virginia had six players score 7 or more points, including four in double figures. Franklin led the way with 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 assist. He made 4 of 7 triples and 7 of 8 free throws to get that line. Franklin connected on a pair of early 3-pointers and never really looked back in the win. Shedrick, Caffaro, and Beekman all registered 10 points for the Hoos. Shedrick added 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots, and 2 steals. Caffaro had 4 rebounds, while Beekman tallied 3 rebounds, 5 assists, and a steal.
Clark’s go-ahead trey helped him reach 9 points to go with 5 assists. Vander Plas posted 7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, and 1 steal. Jayden Gardner led the team with 9 rebounds and while he only had 3 points, he did reach the 2,000-point plateau for his career.
That balanced offense came courtesy of a high assist rate. The Cavaliers finished with 16 assists on 20 made baskets, an 80% assist rate. They shot just 42.55% from the field overall, but 44.0% from downtown as they made 11 of 25 3-point attempts. That’s more made 3’s in a game than all of last season with 5 different players contributing to the total. The hosts also made 22 of 30 free throws.
“I think that’s how we have to play,” Franklin said. “Share the ball. Find open looks. Find open teammates and then just having that confidence to step up and knock down shots. That’s what they preach to us, touching multiple sides of the floor with ball screens and running our ball screen motion and our sides and just moving the ball.”
Virginia returns to action on Friday at 9 p.m. against Monmouth.