In tragically typical fashion, the Virginia Cavaliers lost a heart-breaker to the Furman Paladins today, 68-67. Despite leading by double digits numerous times throughout the game, the ‘Hoos simply fell apart in the final minutes. With the loss and the conclusion of UVA’s season, we have five takeaways.
Virginia chokes in March yet again
For starters, any pessimism or overall negativity about UVA not succeeding in March Madness has to be taken with the behemoth of salt that is the 2019 National Championship. It doesn’t matter if the Cavaliers don’t win an NCAA Tournament game for a decade, you take that title and make the deal with the devil every single gosh darn time.
BUT, boy oh boy it’s getting tiring seeing this program get upset in the tournament every single year outside of 2019. Beyond that, the late game choking is just exhausting to watch. Virginia was up four points with 19 seconds left, then up two with the ball seven seconds later. Going further back, the ‘Hoos were up 12 with 11:54 remaining, up 12 at the 15:24 mark of the second half, and up 11 with 17:20 remaining. Virginia had every single opportunity to lay the final blow, to extend its lead so that Furman couldn’t shoot its way back into the game.
But, quite simply, the Cavaliers didn’t. The Paladins went on a 19-4 run from 10:54 to go until 5:02 left. UVA did manage a 7-0 run to take control of the game in the last few minutes. But missed free throws, an inability to get a stop, and one really bad decision ended up defining this game’s final result.
And that stinks. Because Tony Bennett’s team played a really solid game. They had control for 30 minutes, but simply couldn’t get it done. Yeah, sure, playing at a slow pace and not running in transition means UVA is typically less likely to pull out big leads and put teams away. But the execution just wasn’t there for the full 40 minutes against a quality Furman team who, eventually, hit the shots necessary to win this game.
On the broader scale, this program needs to establish more consistent tournament success in order to reach the true upper echelon of college basketball. That’s a high bar and a tough standard, but that should be the goal once a National Championship banner is in the rafters.
Alas, since 2012, Virginia has performed the worst (relative to the seed of their opponent per BartTorvik’s Performance Against Seed Expectations or PASE) in the NCAA Tournament of any other Division One program. Since 2000, Tony Bennett is also in last place among coaches in PASE. The regular season success has been practically unparalleled, and the hardware can shut up any detractors saying that significant change needs to occur. But the struggles are still real and, to be the best, Virginia still has a long way to go in the month of March.
Kihei Clark ends his career with quite the bookend
I’ll start this takeaway with a similar disclaimer as the one above. Kihei Clark will go down as all-time great in the Virginia basketball program. UVA does not win a National Championship without him in 2019 and the program has far, far less success over the past four seasons without him on the court. Yeah, some of the records he holds deserve an asterisk because of the extra year, but he’s still impacted winning to an incredible degree over his five year career and deserves immense gratitude from the Wahoo fanbase.
With that said, UVA wins this game if he makes a play he’s made dozens of times throughout his career. In the waning seconds, instead of heaving the ball to half-court which resulted in the game-winning JP Pegues three, had he simply taken a timeout, passed the ball to an open Reece Beekman, or, heck, just physically curled up around the ball for five seconds, Virginia probably wins this game. Sad as it is to say, he lost them the game in the final seconds with that disastrous pass.
Of course, it’s tragically ironic that this is how he ends his career as a Cavalier considering the play that he will always be most known for. His heroic pass against Purdue in the final seconds of regulation essentially propelled Virginia to its first Final Four in nearly four decades. That play and how he clutched up throughout the 2019 run will never be forgotten. But, unfortunately, neither will his play in the 2023 postseason. After a bad game in the ACC Championship against Duke, he followed it up with another performance that was simply un-like the player he’s been for five seasons. And it stinks to see such a quality player, leader, and person go out like that. But he still deserves gratitude.
Shots need to be made to win in March
Despite being a slightly above average shooting team for the majority of the season, what plagued the ‘Hoos down the stretch was quite simply an inability to make shots. Going 2-12 from three against Furman, UVA did do well attacking the paint (where they scored 32 points) instead of relying on the deep ball. Unfortunately, the Paladins switching to a zone in the last ten minutes stumped the ‘Hoos for a good bit of time, allowing Furman to pull back into the game and, eventually, take the lead.
At the end of the day, Furman (10-28 from three) made more shots than Virginia did. Only hitting two threes in an NCAA Tournament game shouldn’t be enough to get the job done, and it wasn’t today.
Absolutely, sometimes shots just don’t fall. Players have off days, so do teams. But Virginia hadn’t shot well for months leading into today, and the trend held. It’s hard to place blame on any individual for that. But those problems were real and, against a defensive opponent that was absolutely weak, all the ‘Hoos needed was one or two more to drop. Tough way to lose, yet that’s just how it goes.
Beekman, Shedrick, and McKneely provide a little optimism
Shifting to a bit more optimism, there was still some really solid play from a few different Cavaliers against Furman.
Starting with Reece Beekman, the third year point guard scored 14 points on 4-9 shooting from the field (6-7 from the line) as he propelled the UVA offense forward throughout the game and showed off the aggression that can make him such a dangerous offensive player. He added five assists and five rebounds as he did tremendously well against Furman’s leading scorer, Mike Bothwell, on either end of the floor as he also recorded a pair of steals and two blocks and effectively forced Bothwell out of the game by drawing foul after foul on the more physical guard.
Beekman has big decisions to make this offseason regarding his future. He’s likely to declare for the NBA Draft, get feedback, and then evaluate whether his professional stock is high enough to leave early or whether coming back for his fourth year would be more valuable. The hamstring injury that has hampered him this season and the fact that he wasn’t able to truly capitalize on his impressive early season form may mean he’s slightly more likely to return than leave.
Secondly, Kadin Shedrick only furthered his incredible postseason comeback with 15 points, 13 rebounds (five offensive), four blocks, a steal, and just three fouls in an impressive 29-minute outing. The redshirt junior had a very up and down year, but he ended it on an incredibly high note as he dominated Furman on the interior, even if he bobbled a few too many passes in the paint. Shedrick is another player who, if he returns to Virginia next year, could be a massive piece for the 2023-2024 team. Going off how he played in UVA’s four postseason games this season, he could be in line for a monster final year in Charlottesville.
A younger player, Isaac McKneely once again proved his worth on a big stage. After a stellar game against Duke in the ACC Championship game, he followed it up with a 12-point day against Furman. While he was just 2-7 from three, a number of those misses just barely rolled out. He provided a necessary spark off the bench, particularly as a shooter, and projects to be a huge part of this program moving forward.
The future is still bright
With those guys highlighted, the future of this program is still bright. Yes, the lack of consistent success in March is frustrating. But the pieces for more success in the regular season and, potentially, another legitimate run in March are there. For the immediate future, it comes down to who returns next season, how much they improve, and who the coaching staff can add through the transfer portal.
For the long term future, the last few high school recruiting classes have been an absolute positive. We saw just how good Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn were this season and how good they can be moving forward. Redshirts Leon Bond and Isaac Traudt are similarly high-ceiling prospects, and the addition of one the 2023 class’ best shooting guards Elijah Gertrude and a high floor, high ceiling center in Blake Buchanan all mean that there are seriously good players in the Wahoo pipeline.
The way this season ended stinks. It’s another NCAA Tournament upset that places a blemish on how good this program has become. Seeing this team and these players lose like this hurts both from a fan perspective, but also just because it would’ve been awesome to see this group make a run.
But the future remains bright. Tony Bennett is still at the helm, and no matter the disappointing first round exits, he’s proven what this program’s ceiling is. There should be no question about the status of this program moving forward.
As always, joy comes in the morning.