The Virginia basketball team entered Friday night’s contest with Maryland-Eastern Shore with the belief that it had an advantage on the interior. The Hawks knew that as well and decided on a game plan to reduce the damage from 3-point range to try to at least limit part of UVA’s balance. The combination of those strategies led to a big opportunity for the Cavalier frontcourt and those players delivered in a 72-45 win.
The Hoos improved to 5-0 ahead of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup at Michigan on Tuesday.
“Shout out to Virginia. Very good basketball team. We knew that coming in,” MES coach Jason Crafton said. “I thought we did a tremendous job of limiting their ability to get going from three-point range. Multiple games, they’ve made over 10 threes. 46% on the season from three. To come in here, in this environment, holding them to five threes, we’re really proud about that. Keeping them to 72 points, they average 80 points per night. We neutralized their best guards, and that was a key for us. We said if we’re gonna lose, we’re gonna lose on their forwards making … shots. And [Jayden] Gardner made a whole lot of those bad boys.”
Indeed, Gardner capitalized more than anyone with the opportunities on the inside.
The senior forward poured in 26 points, a game high that doubled everyone else’s total on either team. He got going quickly with the first bucket of the game and 6 points in the first 4 minutes. That set the tone quickly as Virginia sprinted out to a 10-2 lead and Gardner never really slowed down after that fast start.
Maryland-Eastern Shore does not have a lot of size up front with the tallest players getting regular rotation minutes standing 6’7″ or shorter, but ultimately that’s not what propelled the 6’6″ Gardner’s success. He simply had too much power and decisiveness for the Hawks to force him off balance or into many difficult attempts. He dominated near the rim and mixed in some mid-range game to eventually record a 12-15 shooting night. That’s a sizzling and efficient 80% from the floor.
“He’s got a low center of gravity. He can get low; he can get under people,” Crafton said. “He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power. That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there. He’s very intentional about getting it to his right hand over his left shoulder, no matter what you’re trying to do. He’s got the weight advantage, he’s got the size advantage, the maturity advantage, the skill advantage, and the toughness advantage. And he took advantage of it. A lot of advantages.”
Virginia also made a concentrated effort to get him touches in good spots. Kihei Clark, in particular, regularly made sure that Gardner caught the ball in position to quickly make moves in the paint. Clark finished with 8 assists and 5 of those helpers went straight to Gardner.
That led to Gardner’s big scoring night as he delivered his 8th 20-point game at UVA. It was by far his best performance of this young season, though. Coming into Friday’s contest, Gardner had scored in double figures only once with a total of 31 points on the season. For a player that hit double digits in 17 of the last 18 games last season, it was a welcomed breakthrough for the new year.
“I thought he played well offensively for sure,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Guys did a really good job finding him and he did a good job sealing and finishing and slowed down. Maryland Eastern Shore plays hard – they really play hard. They’re quick, so they can make you [feel] rushed. … I thought he really established, you know, easy baskets for us. The guys found him and so that was good to see because I think, you know, he’s been a little bit rushed at times, but we’re going to need that that offensive punch that he gives us. Because when he’s aggressive, but not rushing, that’s when he’s at his best and I think that really helps us.”
“Yeah, just slowing down, checking to see what’s coming in, and if nobody’s coming, just go make my move and go right over the opponent,” Gardner said. “Coach [Bennett] just emphasized me just paying my game and just playing at a good pace.”
UVA’s other frontcourt players got in on the success too. Kadin Shedrick added 13 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocked shots, and 1 assist to the cause. Like Gardner, he was extremely efficient as he made all 4 shots and all 5 free throws that he attempted in the game. That’s the second time in the last three games that the UVA center has been perfect from the floor after he hit all 6 shots against Baylor last week in Las Vegas. He’s currently 17 of 23 on the season for a 73.9% shooting percentage so far this season. Francisco Caffaro made his only shot attempt as well for 2 more points from the front court, while Ben Vander Plas went 1-3 for 2 points too.
The Cavalier starting guards combined for 19 points. Reece Beekman led the way there with 9 points, 2 assists, and 4 steals, while Clark and Armaan Franklin added 5 points each. Isaac McKneely stuck a pair of late 3-pointers and Chase Coleman added one in the final minute as well to help dress up that stat category a little bit. Still, UVA finished just 5-15 shooting behind the arc with a lot of that coming in those late moments when the lopsided result was well in hand. Maryland-Eastern Shore, after all, had just one player in double figures as Zion Styles had 11 points for the Hawks, who shot just 34.5% in the game.
The Wahoos, on the other hand, shot 52.9% overall and they again helped each other get good shots with 18 assists on 27 made baskets. In this game, that benefitted Gardner and Shedrick more than anyone. In earlier games, Franklin or others took advantage and that’s been a key part of the 5-0 start. The burden isn’t on any one player to put up big point totals every night.
“I think it’s huge because the guys, we just built this trust factor, and I think us trusting each other on the court, and just our games, everybody’s game, has improved, so it’s nothing to pass up your shot for the next shot and get a great shot,” Gardner said. “The guys, I did not think we shot the three as good tonight, but we might shoot it better next game. The guys put the work in.”