In a game where both offenses generated scoring runs, the Virginia men’s basketball team started fast and closed both halves in convincing fashion. That fueled a victory over in-state rival Virginia Tech, 78-68, in front of a boisterous crowd at the John Paul Jones Arena on Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers improved to 14-3 overall and 6-2 in the ACC with the win. It marked the 399th victory of Tony Bennett’s career and made UVA senior Kihei Clark the winningest player in program history with 111 in the orange and blue. Clark will close his career with a perfect 4-0 mark against VT at the JPJ.
“Virginia Tech is really good. They’re healthier now when they have Hunter [Cattoor] back and he’s such a good player,” Bennett said. “Then they put a lot of pressure on you and rarely will you hear me say this, but we had to score. We had a hard time stopping them. We ran good offense and the guards made timely big baskets. … I think all the guys that were in there did a good job and it was just a really good game for us and I think for them too. There were a lot of runs.”
Indeed, Virginia capitalized on a fast start to set the tone and then closed each half with runs too.
On the opening possession, Clark found Ben Vander Plas for a layup as he started in place of Kadin Shedrick for the second straight game. After a brief 2-2 tie, the Hoo added back-to-back buckets from Armaan Franklin, a steal and layup from Clark, and a traditional 3-point play on a driving layup from Reece Beekman to jump out to 11-2 lead 4:14 into the action.
The Hokies battled back and took the lead briefly at 21-19 and 24-23 thanks to shots from Darius Maddox and Sean Pedulla. But the Hoos had an answer. Over the final 6:30 of the first half, they put together a 17-7 advantage to lead by nine at the break 40-31.
The half-ending surge started with a an old-fashioned 3-point play from Franklin as he made a turn-around shot on a post touch and added the free throw. It closed with three plays at the rim as Franklin got a dunk at 1:49, Clark drove for a layup with 39 seconds to go, and Beekman beat his man for a signature slam just before the buzzer.
That last one drew a thunderous reaction from the fans in the building, brought front-row NBA stars Ty Jerome and Steph Curry to their feet, and brought some ‘you’re a bad man’ looks from Franklin and Clark as they exited the floor with Beekman.
Closing the half with the trio of guards heavily in the mix provided a clear picture for how the game unfolded in a lot of ways. Clark led all scorers with 20 points and added 5 assists, while Franklin tallied 15 points on 6-9 shooting and 5 rebounds. Beekman finished with 11 points and 7 assists too. With 46 points between them, they obviously played a major role in the win.
“We trust each other 100% and believe in each other,” Clark said. “When guys shoot their shots, we think it’s going in and on the defensive end, I’m taking our three guards against anybody else. I think it’s just through the games and through the repetitions, just being on the court together is trust.”
With a halftime deficit, Virginia Tech needed to find another rally in the second half to get back in it. The Hokies closed to a 2-point deficit at the 15:17 and 12:18 points in the second half. They were still within 4 points at 59-55 when Justyn Mutts shook the basket with a driving dunk too.
That’s when the second half-ending surge came through for the Hoos.
The hosts responded to that dunk with 9 quick points in less than a minute. Clark knocked down a 3-pointer, Jayden Gardner converted yet another old-school 3-point play, and Isaac McKneely drained a wing triple to push the lead back to double digits in a blink. Tech never got closer than 8 points the rest of the way as Virginia closed with a 19-13 advantage on the board.
UVA’s three experienced guards were certainly part of closing it out, but a handful of plays from Gardner, McKneely, and Vander Plas helped shut the door too. Gardner had 12 points and 4 rebounds, while Vander Plas chipped in 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. McKneely finished with 7 points and an assist. The Hoos had 19 assists with only 5 turnovers and shot 50.9% from the floor.
“Just taking good shots, teammates finding us with the ball, and our 3 [man] game is kind of clicking we’re playing off each other,” Gardner said. “When guys shoot the ball well, I-Mac, Armaan, Reece, Kihei, we’re a tough team to beat.”
VT saw that in person Tuesday night. The Hokies put together their own strong offensive outing with five players in double figures too. Maddox led the visitors with 13 points, while Grant Basile and Cattoor had 12 and 11 points respectively. Mutts and Pedulla each had 10. Tech also had 19 assists with only 8 turnovers and shot 49.1% overall.
That still wasn’t enough to snap a six-game losing streak in conference play.
“They’ve got a really good outfit,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said. “I tell you what, if there’s 10 teams out there better than them nationally, I’d like to see them. They are very good.”