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Five takeaways from UVA basketball’s comeback victory against North Carolina

It wasn’t pretty, but the Cavaliers stormed back for a big 65-58 win over the wounded Tar Heels

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 10 ACC Tournament - North Carolina v Virginia Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It wasn’t a stellar performance for 40 minutes against North Carolina, but against a Tar Heels squad missing Armando Bacot after he twisted his ankle two minutes into the game, the Virginia Cavaliers did enough to defend home court in a comeback victory.

After trailing for most of the first half, a 20-6 run in the middle of the second gave the ‘Hoos a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish as strong defensive play down the stretch and a big Isaac McKneely triple helped withstand a late burst of shotmaking by North Carolina.

Small ball changes the game for the ‘Hoos

For a majority of the contest, Virginia’s offense looked like the same anemic unit it had been for far too long this season. Aside from occasional burst of Reece Beekman transition stardom, the same old story — mediocre shot selection, missed jump shots, an inability to finish around the basket — played out for a half and looked to be continuing into the second.

Then, Hubert Davis pulled backup big Jalen Washington out of the game. With Armando Bacot injured, the Tar Heels went to an ultra-small-ball lineup with Justin McKoy playing the five. The ‘Hoos responded in turn, with a minuscule combination of Kihei-Reece-McKneely-Franklin-Vander Plas. Yeah, I didn’t have Armaan Franklin on my power forward bingo card either.

Here’s how the next seven possessions went for the Cavaliers:

  1. Ben Vander Plas knocks down two free throws after drawing a foul
  2. Armaan Franklin cuts to the basket for an easy two
  3. Armaan Franklin throws down a putback dunk after Kihei misses a good layup
  4. Reece Beekman with an easy layup after cutting downhill
  5. Ben Vander Plas top of the key 3 to give the ‘Hoos their first lead in a long time
  6. Reece Beekman makes both free throws after getting hacked on an open dunk
  7. Ben Vander Plas somehow throws down a putback dunk

Not too bad. The ‘Hoos led 46-40 at the end of that little spurt and didn’t trail again.

Isaac McKneely and Ben Vander Plas come up big off the bench

Virginia usually asks Isaac McKneely and Ben Vander Plas to be offensive spark plugs off the bench. Tonight, they were the whole engine.

Vander Plas led the charge by pouring in a game-high 17 points in 27 minutes off the bench. UNC gave him a bit too much space on the perimeter especially in the second half, and he really got rolling. BVP knocked down three triples and shockingly threw down two dunks en route to an efficient and impressive offensive performance. BVP’s been in a bit of a slump recently — he’d scored just 14 points in his last four games on 28% shooting — but he broke out in a big way when the Cavaliers needed it most.

McKneely, for his part, hit practically every big shot he took. The freshman from West Virginia is quickly developing a penchant for big shots. Recently, it’s been end-of-first-half buzzer beaters; tonight, it was a massive three off the dribble to give Virginia a 61-55 lead with 2:21 to play. But that wasn’t McKneely’s only contribution: he hit a big three to cut UNC’s lead in the first half during his brief stint, gave Virginia their largest lead of the game at the time with a three to make it 49-42, and also navigated off the dribble for a nifty 10-foot floater. He’s officially gone from “good for a freshman” to just good.

Reece Beekman, one of college basketball’s best closers

Beekman looks to finally be back to full health, and has solidly reclaimed his title as Virginia’s most impactful player. The amount of offense he creates for the Cavaliers is just unbelievable. There aren’t many positive things about Beekman that haven’t been said before, but here’s one spicy maybe-overreaction: there are very few players in college basketball I’d rather have in the clutch than Reece Beekman.

Reece has proven he can do it all on both ends when it matters most. Against Syracuse as a freshman and Duke as a sophomore, he delivered killer game-winning threes. Against Baylor and Illinois, he came up with back-breaking steals and runout baskets. Against Michigan, he scored off a post-up and then stripped Jett Howard’s game-winning three-point attempt. Tonight, he threw down a driving dunk in the half-court to extend Virginia’s lead to five and then stripped Caleb Love’s three-pointer two possessions later to all but ice the game.

Seriously, if you need a score and a stop, who else would you want?

A tale of two halves from three

Somehow, Virginia entered this game ranked 25th nationally in three-point percentage. You certainly wouldn’t know it from watching the Cavaliers play. Their starting lineup went 0-8 from beyond the arc in yet another rough jump shooting outing. In a cruel twist of fate, when Isaac McKneely knocked down Virginia’s first three-pointer of the game after almost eleven minutes of game time and quite a few attempts, he immediately took an elbow to the face and didn’t return in the first half.

However, things really turned around after the break as the Cavaliers knocked down four of their eight attempts. They were more selective with their threes to begin the half, especially once they started to pick apart UNC’s interior defense with cuts to the basket, but once BVP and McKneely started to heat up the jumpers started to fall. Both players hit huge threes en route to the Cavalier victory.

Virginia’s slow starts hurt them again

After UNC’s star center Armando Bacot almost immediately exited the game with an ankle injury, it felt like Virginia might be able to put together a statement half. They dominated the run of play early in the first half and took an early 10-3 lead, and with UNC reeling in the absence of their best player, the outlook was positive.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Virginia put together a woeful run of offense thanks to some cold shooting and poor turnovers and allowed backup center Jalen Washington — who had 13 total points entering tonight — to roast them on the interior. North Carolina went on a 21-5 run over the following nine minutes and change, putting to bed any hopes of this game being an easy victory for the Cavaliers. The ‘Hoos put together another nice turnaround after the break — they’re 5-2 in games they trail at halftime — but that still doesn’t fully excuse their woeful performance against a Bacot-less UNC squad.