As the Virginia Cavaliers pulled out a clutch victory on the road against the Syracuse Orange by a final score of 67-62, UVA advances to 17-3 on the season and 9-2 in ACC play. With the win, we have five takeaways.
Jayden Gardner wins the game for UVA in the final minute
While his play throughout the entire game was stellar, the two plays that Jayden Gardner made in the final minute essentially won this game for the Wahoos. First, matched up against Jesse Edwards in the post with exactly a minute to go, Gardner guarded Edwards face up, unconcerned about the five inch height differential, effectively shuffled his feet to match Edwards drive to his left, drawing the charge as the Syracuse big man initiated contact. With that defensive stand and drawn charge, Gardner fouled Edwards out of the contest and gave the Cavaliers a fantastic opportunity to put the game on ice with a 64-62 lead with 1:00 left.
Then, on the proceeding possession, as the shot clock was winding down and nobody could create space within the Syracuse zone, Gardner popped to the middle of the defense, caught the ball, drove into the chest of 6’11” Mounir Hima, stepped away, and hit a fadeaway midrange jump shot to put Virginia up four points and two possessions with 33 seconds remaining.
As mentioned, Gardner’s superb performance went beyond just those two plays. His 17 points, eight rebounds (five of which were offensive), two steals, 6-11 shooting from the floor, and 5-7 performance at the free throw line led the way for UVA. Offensively, he was such a potent shooter in the soft spots of the Syracuse zone while making plays on the glass and finishing strongly at the rim. Defensively, he was particularly great in the second half both on ball when he had to guard Edwards and off-ball as he played the passing lanes well, was smart in deciding when to double, and was sound in his rotations.
With this outing, Gardner has strung together the two best games of his season in the last three days after putting up 18 points against Boston College on Saturday. The veteran has been on the outside looking in at times during this win streak but he’s clearly stayed ready and come up huge when the team needed it. That’s poise, that’s experience, and that’s sheer will power.
Kadin Shedrick’s play is a problem
Before this season, Kadin Shedrick looked primed for a breakout season. Not only is the redshirt junior season typically when Virginia bigs truly establish themselves and find consistency, but after last season he seemed to be ever so close to rounding out his game and becoming a dominant big for UVA. His potential as a player has always been high as he can be a defensive fiend blocking shots, blowing up ball screens, and making life easy for his teammates while his offensive game had been expanding. All offseason it sounded as though he could be a big time player for the Cavaliers in the paint.
Alas, despite showing flashes early in the season as an efficient finisher and a playmaking defensive center, his continued problems with foul trouble (Shedrick is 92nd of 92 qualifying ACC players in fouls per 40 minutes), general inconsistency, and unfortunately silly mistakes have left the team without a true center to rely on when needed.
That missing piece was obvious against Syracuse as the Orange largely ran their offense through center Jesse Edwards — who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds (four offensive) and three assists. While Shedrick played 11 minutes, was 2-2 offensively with a pair of athletic alley oop finishes, and had a steal, he also fouled three times in that stretch as he’s been playing defense far too much with his hands rather than with his feet. Without Shedrick as a reliable individual defender of Edwards, UVA was left scrambling as Vander Plas and Gardner typically struggled against the Syracuse center’s height and length.
Fortunately, those two managed to combine to get enough stops to eke out the win. But Shedrick’s play of late is legitimately concerning for when the ‘Hoos come up against star big men such as Duke’s Kyle Filipowski, North Carolina’s Armando Bacot, or Clemson’s PJ Hall. Teams have clearly identified defending the post as one of Virginia’s weaknesses and it’s only a matter of time before one makes them pay for it.
Virginia’s freshmen continue to prove their worth in big moments
With Virginia (and Charlottesville area) natives Justin Taylor and Maliq Brown combining to play 71 minutes in this game, there was an obvious challenge implicated for UVA’s Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn as Tony Bennett essentially chose those two guys instead of the local products. While Dunn and McKneely play for a deeper, more experienced team than Taylor and Brown, they each had their moments in this one which proved critical for the ‘Hoos down the stretch.
McKneely’s pair of triples in the first half helped to keep the offense from falling into lulls as the Syracuse zone was suffocating the Wahoo offense while his typically error free offensive game kept the Orange honest all game long. He also added four tough defensive rebounds in 18 minutes.
In just eight minutes of action, Dunn (per usual) was quiet until he wasn’t. His one-handed dunk off an alley oop pass from Kihei Clark was in typical highlight-reel Dunn fashion while he provided a decent change up on the defensive end when Virginia was struggling to find a way to stop Jesse Edwards.
Dunn and McKneely continuing to gain late game experience will be beneficial in the short and long term as their development keeps pushing UVA’s ceiling higher this season and into the future.
UVA’s experience goes on full display
While the youngsters had their moments, this was still a game where the value of getting old and staying old showed itself for Virginia. As the fifth year Gardner played incredibly, so did fellow super seniors Kihei Clark and Ben Vander Plas. Notching a double-double, Clark scored 12 points and dished 10 assists with five of his points coming in the final 3:04 of regulation as his clutch three-pointer and pair of free throws on consecutive possessions stretched the Wahoo lead out from 59-58 to 64-58.
BVP was also particularly important playing in the Syracuse zone as his passing ability and knack for creating space and finding open teammates garnered six assists — he also finished with seven points and seven rebounds. His one play in the final minutes where he came from out of bounds, established himself with two feet in bounds, corralled an offensive rebound, and fed Clark at the top of the key was a game-altering, but underrated, moment.
Granted, Clark did have five turnovers while Vander Plas had three. But that’s simply going to happen against such a lengthy and well-coached zone defense like Syracuse when making the tight-window passes is necessary to create open looks. Overall, having such an abundance of experience continues to win UVA games. These guys have been in these moments time and time again and are comfortable making plays in the clutch.
Update: I originally left Armaan Franklin out of this, but he deserves credit to for a 12-point performance. He may have shot just 4-11 from the field and 3-9 from deep, but he finished 2-3 after starting 1-6 and hit two big threes with 7:32 and 5:55 remaining in the second half to pull Virginia from down three to back up three.
The next three games could determine UVA’s finish in the ACC
With this now seven game win streak, the Cavaliers still control their own destiny in the ACC as first place Clemson comes to Charlottesville on February 28th for a game that could very well determine who wins the regular season conference title. Yet, things could and probably will change dramatically before that game is even played.
Virginia’s next three games represent UVA’s toughest stretch of opponents this season. Playing Virginia Tech in Blacksburg this coming Saturday, then hosting NC State on Tuesday, and closing out a tough week by welcoming the Duke Blue Devils to town on the 11th, the ‘Hoos could make or break their regular season right here.
By winning all three, the UVA would set themselves up fantastically to win the ACC with games against Louisville (really bad), Notre Dame (relatively bad), and Boston College (bad) spanning the following week of action before heading to Chapel Hill, then taking on Clemson, and closing out the regular season at home against Louisville (again, really bad). Assuming those four Quad 4 games go down as wins, going 4-1 or better in the remaining five should be enough for the ‘Hoos to get the one seed in Greensboro.
Of course, the 10-1 Clemson Tigers are the team UVA has to worry about challenging them for that spot. But with how the Tigers have played on the road this season and considering how they’ve lucked out with some close wins (looking at you, Florida State), it seems reasonable for them to drop at least two more games on their schedule (which includes home vs Miami, on the road against North Carolina, home vs Syracuse, at NC State, and away vs Virginia).
All this goes to say that this seven game win streak has been massive for Tony Bennett and company. Should they keep it going, things should start falling into place.