Despite their best efforts in a chaotic closing sequence, the Virginia Cavaliers pulled out a crucial 66-65 road victory over Clemson and improved to 8-3 in ACC play. Jake Groves remained on fire, pacing the team with 17 points, while Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely added 14 apiece. Jordan Minor’s post defense limited PJ Hall to just 25% from the field, and while late free throw shooting woes gave Clemson an opportunity to win the game at the buzzer, Jack Clark’s pull-up three hit the back iron and the ‘Hoos held on for their sixth consecutive victory.
‘Hoos continue to ride Jake Groves’s hot shooting
How big has Groves’s re-emergence been for the ‘Hoos over their past two games? Against Notre Dame, he poured in six threes en route to 18 points after scoring just 25 over his last five games combined. He stayed hot against Clemson on the road, taking advantage of Clemson’s decision to defend him with undersized players to find open looks for three. Groves finished with 17 points on 7-9 shooting and 3-4 from three.
His baskets came at vital moments in the game, too, with none more important than a back-breaking sidestep three off the dribble right before halftime to extend UVA’s lead to eight points at the break. But that wasn’t the only big make: one turnaround midrange jumper quelled a Tigers run, and a second step-in midrange helped force Clemson out of their zone early in the second half. With the run Groves is on as a jump shooter right now, it makes a lot of sense to slot him into the lineup alongside Jordan Minor and Ryan Dunn.
Groves didn’t play a perfect game — he picked up a few soft fouls early, which resulted in some soft defense on Ian Schieffelin which let the Clemson power forward get going, and he missed a huge free throw late which kept Clemson in the game. However, his shot-making changes the dynamic offensively for this UVA team.
Jordan Minor is Virginia’s best big man
Big man Jordan Minor faced his first true test against an established veteran in the paint and passed with flying colors. Minor did an excellent job slowing down Clemson’s star PJ Hall, who entered the game averaging nearly 20 points per game along with seven rebounds. Hall looked visibly frustrated in the first half after getting outworked for position in the paint by Minor, and struggled to create good looks around the hoop. He scored only two points on 1-6 shooting and finished the game just 4-16 (though 12 free throw attempts brought him to a respectable 19 points).
The difference between Minor and Blake Buchanan’s work against Hall showed itself in the second half. Once Minor left the game momentarily, Clemson immediately went on a quick run by feeding their big in the post for one easy basket and a pair of free throws; Tony Bennett immediately pivoted back to the Merrimack transfer. On the next play down the court, Minor caught the ball rolling to the basket and calmly used a crab dribble to score under the basket and stop the bleeding. And he came up with a huge defensive stop on PJ Hall in the post on a crucial late possession to keep the score 66-62.
Earlier in the season, there were real questions about whether Minor would even be in the rotation during conference season. Now, he’s the team’s most valuable big man.
Road winning streak extends to three games
The start to this season on the road for the ‘Hoos was ugly. They lost their first four true road games by an average of 20 points per game and looked wholly uncompetitive in the second halves of all four of those games. Specifically, UVA struggled to create and make clean looks for themselves; especially after opponent runs, Virginia would lose their offensive composure and settle for midrange jumpers far too often.
Beyond the final score today against Clemson, the ‘Hoos demonstrated an impressive new resilience. After jumping out to an early 27-16 lead, Clemson rattled off eight straight points as the Cavaliers failed to finish makeable shots — a common story away from home this year. However, UVA settled back into their system and closed out the half on a critical 7-2 run. When Clemson cut it to three in the second half, Andrew Rohde (whose offensive struggles are well-documented) knocked down a big wing three for his first points of the game. And with a tenuous one-point lead late, Isaac McKneely curled around a screen for a massive four-point play.
Old habits die hard, and the ‘Hoos certainly did their best to let Clemson back into the game late. Up by four with under 30 seconds to go, Jake Groves and Dante Harris each missed the front end of one-and-ones and Jordan Minor fouled PJ Hall on a three-point attempt — a comedy of errors which allowed Chase Hunter a potential game-winning buzzer-beater. However, UVA did just enough to hold on and extend their road winning streak to three games.
Cavaliers getting better at “winning ugly”
Despite their ACC record, Clemson is a great basketball team. They entered today’s game ranked 29 spots ahead of Virginia in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin, they have one of the best non-con wins in the ACC (on the road against Alabama), and they have four very good offensive players in their starting lineup.
At the same time, Virginia didn’t play a great basketball game. The starting backcourt of Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely needed 32 shots to get to 28 points, and shot just a combined 34 percent from the field. The team as a whole shot just 44% from the floor, 33% from three, and 69% from the line; only Jake Groves could really say he played a great game on that end of the floor. And the ‘Hoos almost blew the win at the end thanks to some unforced late-game gaffes.
In the bigger picture, though, it’s a great sign that UVA hung on to win against a good team despite not bringing their A game. As Tony Bennett loves to say, defense travels, and even as the Tigers paraded to the line in the second half they still finished with their second-lowest scoring total of the season. Winning ugly is a skill, and it’s good to see a young Virginia roster learn how to grind out messy victories.
UVA continues to work back into the tournament picture
Six games ago, Virginia’s tournament hopes looked almost dead in the water. After back to back losses by 16 and 19 points, the ‘Hoos fell out of Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out” and saw their odds of making the field on Bart Torvik drop below 4 percent.
Since then, they’ve rattled off six consecutive wins en route to an 8-3 record in ACC play and a chance to finish the day in second place in the conference if Duke loses to North Carolina. The streak’s included wins over two above-average ACC teams in Virginia Tech and NC State and one very good team in Clemson. The needle continues to point upwards for this UVA roster as Tony Bennett learns to effectively deploy his whole roster of talent, with important contributions coming from previously unexpected places (Jordan Minor, Jake Groves, Taine Murray). And the ‘Hoos are getting hot at the right time, as they’ll face only one team outside the KenPom top 100 over the rest of their regular season. Keep this up, though, and they’ll find themselves in the bracket on Selection Sunday.
Note: The first paragraph of this story was edited to reflect that Jack Clark, not Chase Hunter, attempted Clemson’s final shot.