Virginia Dialed In Defense Late To Secure Title In Vegas

Virginia Cavaliers
Virginia holds up the title belt in Las Vegas. ~ Photo courtesy Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The Virginia basketball team climbed to 4-0 with a win against Illinois on Sunday. The 70-61 victory also secured the Continental Tire Main Event Championship for the Hoos. For a moment it looked like the Hoos might be letting the title slip away, though.

The Cavaliers entered the under 4 minute media timeout struggling on defense. The Illini, after all, scored on 6 of their 7 possessions prior to that timeout break with 3:38 to go. Virginia went from a 49-47 lead to a 56-58 deficit during that stretch as Illinois guard Jayden Epps hit 2 3-pointers and Dain Dainja led a surge on the offensive glass. Any way you look at it, the bottom line is the same: UVA couldn’t get consistent stops for nearly 5 minutes of action.

And that brought up the Hoos’ troubles closing out games last season. In a theme that essentially cost the Cavaliers an NCAA Tournament spot and eventually eliminated them in the NIT, Virginia repeatedly crumbled defensively late in games a year ago. That played a role in more than half of the season’s losses.

A look back shows how much of a problem stretch defense really was last season. Against Navy, UVA allowed scores on 4 of the final 7 possessions (including two layups on offensive rebounds) and lost 66-58 in a game that was tied at 55. Against Iowa, the Hoos allowed scores on 4 of the final 7 possessions again as the Hawkeyes won 75-74 with a bucket in the final 10 seconds. At JMU, the Cavaliers allowed scores on 4 of the final 6 possessions as the Dukes hit a go-ahead shot with 1:10 to go. Those were all in the non-conference schedule.

It continued in the ACC. Against Wake Forest, UVA allowed scored on 6 of the final 7 possessions (including two offensive rebounds that led to points) and the Demon Deacons closed the door on any comeback hopes in a four-point game late. Against Virginia Tech, Virginia allowed scores on 7 of the final 9 possessions and lost 62-53 in a game that was 49-46 entering the final five minutes. Against Duke at home, it was a 1-point game with five minutes to go when UVA allowed scores on 6 of the final 9 possessions and lost 65-61. Finally, Florida State rallied from an 8-point deficit with five minutes to go and shocked Virginia 64-63 on a last-second heave. The Seminoles scored on 9 of their final 11 possessions.

In the NIT, St. Bonaventure ended UVA’s season by scoring on 3 of the final 5 possessions. The Cavaliers led 50-45 entering the final three minutes in that one.

Simply put, stretch defense was a problem last season. So when Illinois put up points on 6 of 7 possessions to take the lead with 3:42 remaining in Las Vegas on Sunday, flashback worries were warranted. The Cavaliers exited that late media timeout, however, and erased the concerns. They held the Illini scoreless for more than three minutes and nearly pitched a late-game shutout before an inconsequential 3-pointer in the final 15 seconds.

In the end, Illinois scored on only 1 of its final 9 possessions. The defense allowed the Hoos to rally back into the lead and into the winner’s circle. A steal by Reece Beekman led to an old-school 3-point play when Kihei Clark got the pass ahead and that edged UVA ahead 59-58. Ben Vander Plas grabbed 3 defensive rebounds in the closing stretch. An offensive foul drawn by Armaan Franklin getting into defensive position provided the exclamation point.

Obviously, it’s just an early season game and a one-game sample at that. Still, for a team with goals of competing for an ACC Championship and getting back into the NCAA Tournament field, finding that defensive