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Five takeaways from UVA Basketball’s annoyingly-close win over the Syracuse Orange

Virginia gets a necessary but shaky victory as Tony Bennett becomes the program’s winningest coach.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a sketchy final ten minutes, the Virginia Cavaliers got back to their winning ways by beating the Syracuse Orange, 73-66. With the win, we have five takeaways.

Scoring droughts continue to be a concern

In a win that was far too similar to UVA’s collapse on the road against Pitt, the Wahoos boasted a 23-point lead with 15:24 remaining in regulation and a 22-point advantage with 11:41 left, a 13-0 run for the Orange and a 8:57 stretch without a field goal for Virginia made this contest way closer than it should’ve been. The Syracuse press, UVA’s stagnant offense, and the ridiculous shots which kept falling for Jim Boeheim’s crew made the final 11:21 of that win feel all too similar to a meeting between these two programs back in 2016.

The Wahoo faithful’s collective post-traumatic stress aside, it was frustrating to watch the UVA offense fall into yet another second half lull after building a big lead. Complacency with an advantage happens. Basketball is a game of runs. But limiting scoring droughts to less than multiple minutes at a time is crucial for this group to reach its potential and to perform on a game to game basis in conference and tournament play. Not scoring a field goal for 8:57 is bad and, even though the ‘Hoos made four free throws in that stretch, such a lackluster performance will be exploited against better teams as the season continues to progress.

Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman pick Syracuse’s defense apart

With 18 combined assists and just four turnovers in the game, Clark (11 assists, 3 turnovers) and Beekman (7 assists, one turnover) were phenomenal as playmakers versus the Syracuse 2-3 zone. They did well drawing defenders to them and then either finding shooters on the perimeter or dumping the ball low to the bigs. Clark in particular was really effective early in the game as he had the Wahoo offense purring from the jump.

While Clark was good early, Beekman came up clutch late with ten points in the final 2:44 of play as his two big jump shots and 5-6 shooting from the free throw line kept UVA from a second consecutive disastrous collapse to an inferior opponent. While the zone meant he wasn’t able to utilize his burst or aggressiveness attacking the rim as much, Beekman keeps trending in the right direction as he’s starting to look like his former self before suffering the injuries which he’s dealt with for the past month or so.

Franklin and McKneely are finding their stride as shooters

As Isaac McKneely shot 4-7 from beyond the three-point line against Syracuse and Armaan Franklin finished 4-9, UVA’s two off-ball guards are clearly starting to establish a meaningful rhythm as shooters. While Franklin has been slightly inconsistent this season, he’s hitting triples at a 41.4% success rate on five attempts per game and, despite early season struggles, McKneely is now 9-17 (52.9%) from deep in the last three games, bringing his season average up to 37.9% on 4.1 attempts per contest.

That success from deep is so, so critical for the Virginia offense. While it was especially on display against Syracuse’s zone defense, being able to capitalize on the shots which Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark generate by driving the lane is fundamental to what the ‘Hoos want to do on offense. Particularly with a front court that hasn’t been able to score as much as it should, the UVA offense is that much more dependent on the combined efficiency of McKneely and Franklin as outside shooters.

UVA defense generates offense

While this iteration of the PackLine defense is far from perfect, what it is far above average at is forcing turnovers. The team’s 11 steals contributed to 23 points off of Syracuse turnovers. With 19 fast break points, those live-ball steals can be a major help to an offense that can get stagnant in the half court and did at times against the Orange.

It’s also impressive how the disruptiveness on defense isn’t coming from just a few guys. UVA’s entire starting backcourt each had a pair of steals while Kadin Shedrick had three to alongside his four blocks with Ben Vander Plas and Isaac McKneely adding one steal each. Not all of those six guys are lockdown individual defenders, but they partially make up for it by generating such positive plays.

On the year, all five of Virginia’s starters have a 2.5% steal rate or higher (all top-25 in the ACC) while Vander Plas (1.6%) and McKneely (1.3) can be sneakily disruptive as well. That’s valuable and should continue to be a key component in the UVA defense’s gradual improvement this season.

Tony Bennett passes Terry Holland for most wins at Virginia

With this evening’s win, Tony Bennett officially passes Terry Holland for most wins by a UVA men’s basketball coach with his 327th victory at the helm. Holland was an absolute great and this achievement is no small feat for Bennett. While the head Wahoo has expressed his wish that Holland could keep the record and how this accomplishment is a testament to his team and staff as well, he nevertheless deserves tremendous credit for building Virginia basketball into the national powerhouse that it is today.

While a few recent losses have slightly altered our expectations for the Wahoos this season, it’s still undeniable that Bennett is the right person to be leading this program. He is the face of UVA athletics both because of who is as a coach and as a person. Bennett embodies everything that is right about this institution and has undoubtedly taught us all something as he’s so ardently displayed the five pillars that he’s built this program on. His sincerity is unrivaled and his success on the court speaks for itself. Who knows if he’d accept it, but give him the lifetime deal, lock him down for as long as realistically possible and let’s keep this thing going for a few decades to come.