In front of a hype JPJ crowd, the Virginia Cavaliers upset the third-seeded Mississippi State Bulldogs 60-57. With the win, Virginia advances to the second round of the NIT and sets up an intriguing matchup with North Texas.
Virginia gets boost from veterans and youth off the bench
There was an idea heading into the NIT that UVA could utilize the extra games with lower stakes to play some of the young guns and give them experience. On Monday, Bennett said that he was planning to stick with his typical rotation as Virginia is in the NIT to win it but that he wouldn’t disregard giving a young guy a shot if he earned it.
That played out against Mississippi State as — in the midst of a second half Bulldog run — Bennett plugged Taine Murray into the lineup. Murray gave UVA a bit of a boost on either side of the floor in his 10 minutes in the second half.
Then, playing the veterans off the bench also worked in Bennett’s favor. Specifically, Francisco Caffaro and Kody Stattmann gave Virginia additional help off the bench.
Stattmann scored four early points while also grabbing three boards in 15 minutes. before not being available in the second half. Meanwhile, Caffaro put up eight points, had five boards, and blocked a shot as he provided much needed physicality in the paint against the Bulldogs’ twin towers of Garrison Brooks and Tolu Smith.
Virginia’s two point guards manage the game well
Entering this season a big potential limiting factor for this roster was the combination of Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark in the backcourt as neither seemed particularly capable of a large off-ball role.
Against the Bulldogs, the two point guards combined for 22 points and 15 assists and only turned the ball over three times. Their combined, mistake-free play helped to keep the UVA offense afloat while shots weren’t falling. Each of them also hit free throws late that helped to propel UVA over the Bulldogs. Clark also had a very smart intentional foul with two seconds left to prevent Mississippi State from getting an open three-pointer in the final seconds that could’ve tied things up.
As the cliche goes, guard play is critical in tournament settings and while these two have struggled at times, their production in the NIT will be critical moving forward.
Jayden Gardner pulls UVA away in the second half
After Mississippi State made its 15-5 run to open the second half, Jayden Gardner provided critical offensive firepower with 14 second half points. His play in the midrange was typically efficient as he went on a 10-2 run of his own in under four minutes of play.
On the night, Gardner finished with 16 points and three rebounds on 7-13 shooting from the floor. His two missed free throws with four seconds remaining and Virginia leading by three were potentially costly. But, fortunately, UVA got one final stop and saved Gardner from the anger of the entire UVA fanbase.
Win sets up matchup of the country’s slowest teams
With the win, Virginia advances to the second round of the NIT as they’ll head to Denton, Texas to take on North Texas. The slowest team in the country in adjusted to pace to Virginia’s second slowest pace, the second seeded Mean Green beat Texas State 67-63 in a back-and-forth affair.
While Virginia fans have endured plenty of low-scoring games in the past, this game may test even the most staunch supporters of Virginia’s deliberate style of play.