In dominant fashion, the Virginia Cavaliers absolutely man-handled the Clemson Tigers in the ACC Tournament with a 76-56 victory that sends them to the ACC Championship game to tipoff against the Duke Blue Devils. With the win, we have five takeaways for the Wahoos as they advance in postseason play.
UVA dominates by playing sound basketball
There likely hasn’t been a more complete, 40-minute performance for this team this season than in the win over Clemson. Nine players played eight minutes or more with eight of them scoring. Taine Murray notched his first points of 2023 while Francisco Caffaro and Kadin Shedrick played 12 and 17 minutes, respectively, after being out of the rotation just a couple weeks ago.
Even beyond that, the ‘Hoos simply didn’t make mistakes and outplayed Clemson in nearly every facet of the game. Virginia had just six turnovers relative to 18 assists on 30 field goals. The Cavaliers dominated down low, grabbing 11 offensive rebounds and generating 14 second chance points while out-scoring Clemson 40-22 in the paint.
The game wasn’t a blowout for much of the first half. But, eventually, UVA simply wore the undisciplined, over-aggressive Tigers down. With 4:00 minutes left in the first half, Hunter Tyson hit a three to close Virginia’s lead to four points at 29-25. Over the next 10:26 of game play (stretching until 14:09 was left in the game), Clemson would score just two points compared to Virginia’s 21 as the Cavaliers ran away with physical play on offense and stout defense against Clemson’s front-court.
From there on, there was seemingly nothing that Brad Brownell’s squad could do to get back in the game. That’s a sign of how experienced this team is, how well they’re playing together, and how much Tony Bennett is out-coaching his opponents on the schematic front right now. Frankly, UVA didn’t play phenomenally well on offense. They didn’t shoot the lights out. But they were just consistently better for 40 minutes, and it showed. If the shots start falling, this team can beat anybody.
Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner are fighters
While the three-point shooting remained relatively cold against Clemson, Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner had great nights as bruisers down low. The two former transfers each had field days against Clemson in the paint as Gardner (23 points, 12 rebounds, 10-15 shooting) consistently out-maneuvered his opponent by exploiting angles and finishing extremely well around the basket and Franklin (16 points, 6-14 from the field, 1-4 from three) didn’t settle for threes and instead recognized he was cold and attacked the rim.
While Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark are typically the guys relied on to run the show for UVA on either end of the ball, the way that Franklin and Gardner produced tonight was a display of Virginia’s versatility on either side of the ball. Bennett switching back to playing his inside triangle offense for a stretch late in the first half and early in the second allowed Franklin and Gardner to exploit mismatches down low and utilize their incredible basketball IQ to embarrass Clemson.
Their eight combined offensive rebounds (five for Gardner, three for Franklin) were a primary example of their tenacity on offense. At 6’6” and 6’4”, they’re by no means the biggest guys on the floor. But they made their presence felt nevertheless and carried the ‘Hoos to one of their best offensive nights in months.
The Ryan Dunn-Kadin Shedrick defensive dynamic is stellar
The absence of Ben Vander Plas in the postseason and the circumstances of his injury are absolutely devastating both for him personally and for the impact it has on the team. Not having him available limits what UVA can do on the floor, curtails a branch of the team’s trademark versatility, and takes a seasoned veteran off the court during the time of the year when experience matters most.
Yet, his injury has forced Virginia to give its more defensively-inclined, less experienced players more opportunities. So far, it’s worked out pretty well. This isn’t to say that Vander Plas’ injury is by any means a positive for the team or that his absence won’t really hurt at some point. But, the results do speak for themselves to some degree. Ryan Dunn and Kadin Shedrick playing more minutes has been a boon for UVA on the defensive side of the ball.
Despite being stuck deep in the doghouse before the tournament began, Shedrick has pieced together two games in two days that are better than any two performances he had over the previous month plus of competition. While he didn’t match his five-block performance from the North Carolina win, he scored eight points against Clemson with seven rebounds, a block, and a steal. Yes, he did foul out in the final minutes of the game. But many of those calls were a bit soft, and he brought so much valuable energy to the floor for UVA that it’s hard to fault him for picking up some whistles considering the number of times he completely denied Clemson around the basket. Having his rim-protection as a part of the defense is a major addition to a group that has good to great individual on-ball defenders.
Meanwhile, Dunn continued his quiet but stellar defensive play against the Tigers. He may not have scored a point, but the 21 minutes he played were similarly impactful to Shedrick. The true freshman grabbed five defensive rebounds, blocked two shots, and did a fantastic job as the doubling big man when Clemson threw the ball into PJ Hall in the post. His length, mobility, and fantastic hands make life hell for opposing offenses to deal with. His offensive production may be limited, but the difference he makes on the other end is enough to validate serious minutes for him.
Francisco Caffaro also absolutely deserves a shoutout for the quality minutes he’s played of late. He might not have the same defensive ceiling or raw abilities of Dunn and Shedrick, but he’s still a perfectly capable and important piece in the front-court. In 12 minutes against Clemson, he scored four points with a pair of finishes and even added two assists for threes,
Adding this element to Tony Bennett’s bag of rotational tricks is a necessary and prominent development for Virginia. Vander Plas being out has limited what UVA can throw at its opponents from a lineup standpoint. But the emergence of Shedrick and Dunn has definitively reinvigorated the Wahoo defense and the options that Bennett has at his disposal.
Kihei Clark shakes the rust off
While other players such as Reece Beekman and the aforementioned Gardner, Franklin, Dunn, and Shedrick have had really solid bounce back performances in recent games since Virginia’s two-game losing streak in late February, Kihei Clark has been a bit quieter. The fifth year point guard hasn’t been bad, he’s just been a bit more in the shadows, working to create opportunities for others while he’s struggled to shoot a bit on offense.
In the ACC Tournament Semifinals, however, Clark put together a really solid outing to re-establish himself as a true scoring and playmaking threat for UVA. In 31 minutes, he scored 13 points (4-8 from the field, 3-6 from three, 2-2 from the line) in an altogether efficient performance as he also tallied four assists to just one turnover along with three rebounds and a steal. He was also a team best +25, for what that’s worth.
There wasn’t ever any real doubt that Clark could or would turn things on in tournament play. It’s well documented how good he is when the lights get bright. But it was still a box to check off to ensure that UVA is playing its best ball in the most important time of the season.
Virginia’s in a really good place
Maybe this is stating the obvious, but from a variety of angles this win has the Wahoos in a really solid place. With a chance to win Tony Bennett’s third ACC Tournament Championship against Duke tomorrow night (or tonight, depending on when you’re reading this), UVA has both a great chance to add some sweet hardware to the trophy case while also having more concretely solidified their NCAA Tournament seeding and simply bounced back with its overall quality of play.
It was only 13 days ago that it felt like this team was on the ropes of getting knocked out. Off the back of two consecutive losses and five straight games where everything felt off, the Cavaliers have come roaring back to life. Regardless of the result against Duke, everyone should feel loads better about this team heading into March Madness than two weeks ago. That’s a tremendous testament to the players and to the staff. It’s hard to pull out of the type of tailspin they were in after those road losses to Boston College and North Carolina.
And, yet, here Tony Bennett’s team is. This game against Duke provides the ‘Hoos a great chance to shut the Blue Devils up about that call from their game back in February, cement themselves as the best team in the conference, and truly lock up a top-four seed (or maybe jump up to a third?). A loss, while it would sting, wouldn’t hurt them too badly other than the lost opportunity. What a great position to be in, and one I know I sure wasn’t imagining 13 days ago.