Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett has always loved the Rocky movies. He even mentioned the opportunity to compete in a title fight during the 2019 National Championship run. After this weekend’s trip to Las Vegas, Bennett’s program owns a belt to go with the theme.
The Cavaliers knocked off Illinois 70-61 in the Continental Tire Main Event Championship Game on Sunday and received a title belt as the trophy. It’s a fitting prize for a tournament that featured four top 20 teams, but especially considering Bennett’s affinity for boxing films.
“This is a heck of a tournament,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said in the postgame media conference. “We were just talking, all four of these teams can play and it’s physical. … We talked about in the second half, the theme was stand your ground from start to finish. That means standing your ground in the areas that are important to us. … It was one of those ‘who’s going to yield?’ You always have to say ‘who’s going to outlast who?’ … Guys wanted it. Both teams. You could feel it. You could feel it in the atmosphere and it just had a good feeling.”
For the second time in three days in Vegas, the Hoos used balanced scoring to generate offense.
Reece Beekman, Kihei Clark, and Jayden Gardner all reached double figures against Illinois. Beekman posted a team-high 17 points to go with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Clark and Gardner tallied 12 points each; Clark added 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals to his line, while Gardner had 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal too. Gardner had his best game of the season so far, while Clark got the offense going early with the first 7 points of the game.
In the end, six players had at least 7 points for Virginia. Of course, the spread-out scoring has been a theme through four games. The Wahoos have had at least six players with at least 7 points in all four of their victories in this 4-0 start. They also logged 10 assists on 20 made shots in this game after entering as the nation’s leader for assist rate.
In addition to the trio mentioned already, Armaan Franklin recorded 9 points to with 5 rebounds and 2 steals. He made just 1 of 5 3’s, his lowest percentage of the season so far. Ben Vander Plas continued his super sub routine with 8 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists. He secured 3 defensive boards down the stretch as UVA ended up with a 37-34 edge on the glass. Kadin Shedrick had 7 points and 6 rebounds despite being limited with some first-half foul trouble.
While balanced scoring carried the Hoos throughout the game, it was Beekman that came alive late with some critical plays that helped get the game into the win column. With 3:14 to go, he knocked the ball free on defense for a steal and then got a throw-ahead pass back in his hands that led to a traditional three-point play with a layup and a free throw. On the next Virginia possession, he dribbled baseline and converted again.
Those 5 points lifted UVA from 59-58 deficit to a 62-58 lead and led the way to the title. After a 10-point, 10-assist double-double against Baylor on Friday too, Beekman claimed Main Event Most Valuable Player honors.
“That was just a big momentum swing I feel like for us,” Beekman said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network. “We needed a bucket and I ended up getting that [and one] so just continuing to stay true for my teammates, being just a point guard that they need, and just a leader now as a third year continuing to try to control the game and be the best point guard I can be.”
After a back-and-forth battle of successful offense in Friday’s game with Baylor, this contest took on more of a physical and defensive nature. UVA shot just 41.7% from the floor and 29.4% from 3-point range while giving up 12 turnovers. Some of the issues were caused by Illinois switching screens everywhere on many possessions. A lot of UVA’s production came from the free throw line where the team made 25 of 32 attempts.
On the flipside, though, the Illini had trouble too. They shot just 40.7% overall and 34.6% from 3-point range. They also had 13 turnovers. Much of the trouble stemmed from difficulty getting consistently comfortable against the Hoos’ defense. The lot of Illinois’ points came from offensive rebounds as it converted 11 offensive rebounds in to 11 second chance points.
Jayden Epps scored 14 points, while Coleman Hawkins added 10 as the only two players in double figures. Led by Beekman, Virginia held Terrence Shannon Jr., fresh off 8 3-pointers and 29 points against UCLA, to only 9 points. He did have 6 assists, but 6 turnovers too. Beekman pointed to the team’s defense as the key to the outcome. The Hoos scored 19 points off of those 13 Illinois turnovers.
“Just defense. The defensive end, we all locked down and everybody took their job serious and personal,” Beekman said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network. “At the end of the day, that’s all we’re going to need to come out on top.”
With the win, UVA has captured a November tournament crown in eight of the last nine seasons. This one came one week after the tragic shooting deaths of Virginia football players Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr., and D’Sean Perry. The community held a memorial service for those players on Saturday at the John Paul Jones Arena and that service was “uplifting yet tragic yet sad” Bennett said. The perspective of the week as a whole remained in Bennett’s thoughts after the game.
“It’s just momentary,” Bennett said of celebrating this title. “It feels good for in the moment and then it’s gone. I’ll never forget a quote my father said and I remember and I’ve said it before to you guys, it feels great in the moment but because I think, even more so now, we know what truly matters, our families, our faith, appreciating the gift of each day, when you have a momentary celebration like this, it enables you to enjoy it. It seems to matter, but in the big picture, it doesn’t. What matters are the things that have been brought front and center that are real so you cling to those things. But, when you step between the lines, when you play, when you practice, you get to your routine, and you get after it, but your heart and mind is never far from our football team, those families, our staff, everybody around it. I know tragedies are happening all over the world, but when it comes to you, it gives you that feeling. It was a little more emotional for me, I think, for those reasons. If this just for those two hours some people in Charlottesville anybody watching said ‘oh that’s good’ and their mind was on that, that’s a good thing.”