The Virginia Cavaliers narrowly escaped in overtime on their way to a 59-53 home win against the NC State Wolfpack. It was a true war of attrition; a sloppy, defensive battle in which both teams shot poorly and turned the ball over. The ‘Hoos got out to a double-digit half-time lead through exceptional half-court defense, limiting the Wolfpack to a season-low 15 points in the first half, but NC State scored 32 in the second half to bring the game to overtime. With the win, the Cavaliers extended their ACC win streak to three games, bringing them to 14-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC.
Virginia owned the boards all night
The Cavaliers single greatest weakness this season has arguably been their ability to rebound. Their comparatively small front court has been bullied by many big, high-major opponents. The ‘Hoos flipped that narrative tonight.
Virginia out-rebounded NC State 54-32. I’m no math major, but that’s a substantial margin. Perhaps even more shocking was the 20 offensive rebounds, far and away a season high for the Cavaliers. Ryan Dunn finished with 4 offensive rebounds, Blake Buchanan grabbed 3 offensive boards, and Jordan Minor added a team-high 6 himself! In vintage Virginia fashion, the big-men provided multiple signature “tip-outs” to reset the shot clock and create numerous second chance baskets.
Without any shocking changes in personnel, Virginia’s success on the glass is indicative of a level of effort and intensity that they haven’t shown too often this season. Every player on the court dove for loose balls, fought for boxouts, and did whatever they could to secure rebounds. The rebound that won them the game epitomized this effort, as the ball was tipped around by both teams down low before Taine Murray rose up and snagged it.
Virginia avoids a near-disastrous second-half comeback
The ‘Hoos held what seemed to be a comfortable 35-22 lead with 13 minutes left in the second half. In a matter of minutes, the lead completely evaporated. Virginia scored just five points from the 14:54 mark to the 4:25 mark in the second half, allowing NC State to take a 41-40 lead. After regaining a 47-43 with a couple minutes left, the Cavaliers couldn’t close the game out with a decisive bucket, and NC State forced overtime on a tip-in with 9 seconds left in regulation.
Fortunately, the defense stepped up in overtime with some pivotal early stops. On the other end, Taine Murray came to the rescue, scoring 6 of his 11 points in overtime including a crowd-erupting three-pointer and 3 crunch time free throws.
What could have been a classic, low-scoring Virginia home win by double-digits turned into an absolute sweat. Scoring droughts continue to plague the Cavaliers, and the offense as a whole needs to be better. The six-point lead with just over 2 minutes left in overtime wasn’t safe, because Virginia couldn’t knock down crucial free throws. Free throws have been an Achilles heel all season— Virginia ranks 335th in the nation in free throw percentage— and they can’t go 7/13 from the stripe like they did today, or they may be on the losing end of close games like this down the road.
Stout interior defense limits the Wolfpack
In the road loss against NC State a few weeks ago, the Wolfpack were getting whatever they wanted around the rim, as they shot 18/29 on two point field goals. In that game, DJ Burns was the catalyst on offense, causing schematic fits for the undersized Cavaliers as they scrambled to double-team him.
It was a different story this time around, and Jordan Minor’s emergence deserves a lot of the credit. Tony Bennett had Minor shadow DJ Burns, subbing him in whenever Burns was on the court in order to match-up man-for-man, utilizing Minor’s size and strength in the paint. He shut down Burns in the first half, but Burns was able to get rolling late in the second half with some difficult high-arching hook shoots that were relatively well-covered.
Meanwhile, Ryan Dunn put up another defensive masterclass, showcasing why he’s so high on many NBA draft boards. He was all over the court tonight, finishing the game with six blocks and providing the final line of defense on the occasions where Wolfpack players found openings in the paint.
While the ‘Hoos defense was much more unsteady in the second half, their first half interior dominance allowed them to build a significant lead. All in all, it was encouraging to see the team hold their own against a potent offense, and prevent one of the better big-men in the ACC from taking the game over.
Offense once again struggles against pressure
The Cavaliers had a difficult time getting quality open shots against NC State’s pressure man-to-man defense. Way too many possessions resulted in contested, end of the shot clock heaves from deep. This has been a consistent trend in many of Virginia’s losses, as defensive pressure from Wisconsin, Memphis, and others really hindered the ‘Hoos offensive actions.
NC State’s full-court pressure forced turnovers all game, particularly when Reece Beekman wasn’t bringing the ball up the court. Virginia turned the ball over a whopping 15 times, well above their season average of 8.2 turnovers per game. So far this season, Beekman’s been the only player capable of generating offense and creating shots for others against heavy pressure. Andrew Rohde lacks the necessary burst to beat his defender, Dante Harris isn’t enough of a true scoring threat, and Isaac McKneely operates much better off-the-ball, coming off of screens.
Alongside the turnovers, Virginia shot an abysmal 24/65 from the field and 4/17 from three. Guards were frequently driven off the three-point line, forcing them to settle for too many inefficient mid-range pull-up jumpers. In general, the half-court offense was stifled for much of the game, as NC State’s guards fought through every Virginia screen in Mover-Blocker. Bennett needs to work on designing some set plays to get McKneely open, and at other times, he needs to simplify the offense to set ball screens for Beekman, their best overall offensive weapon.
Virginia’s playing their way back into the tournament picture
A Quad 3 home win over NC State isn’t exactly game-changing for the NCAA Selection Committee, but Virginia’s recent play has gotten them back on track for the NCAA Tournament. It’s gonna take a lot to make up for the five blowout losses— especially the Quad 4 smackdown at the hands of Notre Dame— but the ‘Hoos are taking steps in the right direction.
The metrics are actually more in Virginia’s favor than not as of now, evidenced by their NET ranking of #52 and their top 10 defensive rating in KenPom. Shutdown defensive performances certainly help. Looking ahead at the rest of the schedule, Virginia needs to ideally win 2 of their 3 toughest remaining games, against Clemson, Duke, and North Carolina respectively. And it should go without saying, they can’t really afford to drop games against the bottom-feeders of the ACC, like Louisville and Boston College. Ultimately, racking up Quad 1 & 2 wins down the stretch is imperative, considering Virginia is just 4-4 in those games, with only one Quad 1 win.
As much as advanced metrics matter, all that Virginia can control is winning games. Unlike last year’s squad, the ‘Hoos can’t get cold in the home stretch. They need to be playing their best basketball in February and into March, and with the talent and leadership of Beekman and company, the Cavaliers can make their way back into the big dance and capture the recently evasive first-round win.