In late December and early January, the Virginia men’s basketball team blinked any time adversity rose on the road and it stumbled to three lopsided conference losses. On Saturday at Florida State, the Hoos just stared it right in the face.
Dealing with foul trouble, physical switching defense, and multiple second-half runs from the Seminoles, the Cavaliers didn’t wither. Instead, they came up with critical shots or just enough free throws to hold on for an 80-76 win. That marked the second straight Saturday that the team had to sweat out a nervous final minute in order to prevail in an opponent’s gym. Virginia topped Clemson 66-65 a week earlier and had to dodge a buzzer-beater attempt from the Tigers.
UVA has won 8 straight games to improve to 19-5 overall and 10-3 in the ACC. That includes four straight victories on the road
“I just think it’s us growing up and finding ways and settling a little more on a rotation, guys improving their game,” Cavalier coach Tony Bennett said of his team’s streak. “Again, and I’ll watch the film, it felt like we’ve really been coming defensively and tonight that didn’t feel as good. Credit to Florida State, the way they can make some plays and attack it. Lively crowd. We’ve played in some pretty aggressive or loud arenas and Saturday’s usually the circled game so being in that setting is important. Every game now, we’re playing to be in the hunt and keep qualifying for the good stuff. We have matured, but still got a ways to go.”
With Virginia a little shaky on defense and in need of clutch plays on offense, many of the critical ones came from Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely. In fact, you could see it all the way through the second half. When FSU climbed within 6 in the first 3 minutes of the half, Beekman made a layup and McKneely made free throws. When State made it 41-36 a few moments later, McKneely responded with an assist on a nice cut for a layup by Jake Groves and then followed it with a 3-pointer on an assist from Beekman.
Later in the half, the Seminoles cut the lead down to 54-52 and the home fans began to roar. McKneely assisted on a Groves’ 3-pointer to stem the tide. Moments later after a Florida State free throw made it 57-53, Beekman drove for a traditional 3-point play courtesy of a layup and a free throw. Then again at 60-55, McKneely made a jumper and Beekman made a layup on consecutive possessions.
The biggest answers of all, however, came in the final minute. The Noles got within 72-68, but Beekman found McKneely open on the wing and even with the shot clock still at 17 seconds, he let it fly and drained the shot. Finally, McKneely stepped to the free throw line twice in the final 12 seconds with the lead down to one possession and converted. He made both at 78-75 and one at 79-76 to help prevent a collapse.
It all added up two career nights for both players. McKneely poured in 29 points, a new career best, on 8-12 shooting. That included 5-7 shooting from 3-point range. He also had 5 rebounds and 2 assists with only 2 turnovers. Beekman, meanwhile, posted a career-high 21 points on 7-16 shooting. He had 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. That production moved Beekman into 47th on the program’s all-time scoring list (1,039), 5th on the program’s all-time assists list (570), and 5th on UVA’s single season steals list with (57) where he already has the record (73 in 2021-2022) and another spot (57 last season). He now has 217 career steals and needs just 6 more to overtake Othell Wilson (222) for the program’s career record.
Groves added 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals. He continued his hot shooting streak with a 2-2 performance from 3-point range too. He has made 16 of 22 3-pointers over the past 5 games. Andrew Rohde chipped in 8 points and 4 assists, while Blake Buchanan had 4 points and 5 rebounds. Dante Harris had 4 assists.
“I think Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely were terrific and I thought Rohde was really good,” Bennett said. “Everyone had their moments and we made plays. Our defense had stretches where it was solid, but it wasn’t sharp enough. We fouled a lot. They got to the paint. And that was at the end, you put your head down and drive and we didn’t have much resistance. We had some breakdowns defensively that we’re going to have to clean up, but I thought those guys making such timely shots and plays … and that was enough tonight barely.”
The key plays offensively proved necessary on a day where the defense didn’t string together stops consistently. Virginia had not allowed more than 66 points since the loss at NC State back on Jan. 6, but Florida State rolled its total up to 76 on the night. The Seminoles shot 51.1% from the floor as players regularly got into the paint and finished near the rim. FSU tallied 38 points in the paint to win that category by 12, though the Hoos fortunately countered with a 24-point edge on 3-pointers.
As Bennett indicated, UVA also had trouble defending without fouling. Florida State’s 26 free throws made and 35 attempted were both the highest of the season by a Cavalier opponent. Ryan Dunn fouled out for Virginia with one really unnecessary foul tightly contesting a 3-pointer while up 4 points in the final 10 seconds. Beekman and Groves each had 4 fouls as well. Jamir Watkins benefitted the most for the hosts with 21 points behind 11-12 shooting at the line. Chandler Jackson recorded 17 points for his team too.
It all added up to the Hoos finding another way to win. Against NC State at home, it took overtime after giving up a second half lead. Against Notre Dame at home, it was red shot 3-point shooting (13-25/52%). Against Miami, it was a sterling defensive effort. Against FSU, it was clutch plays offensively. They’ll try to keep the win streak going against Pitt at home on Tuesday.
“College basketball, I don’t want to say start over, but every game, every practice, you begin again,” Bennett said. “You can’t ever guarantee oh we’re going to have it. … You just re-establish. You don’t get too high after a win or too down after a loss, you just keep, as we say, chipping away and growing. You learn in defeat, but it’s nice to learn in victory too.”