After missing huge free throw, McKneely relieved UVA is in the big dance

By Jerry Ratcliffe

While no one placed the blame for Virginia’s exit from the ACC Tournament on Isaac McKneely, he personally shouldered the blame for the Cavaliers’ overtime loss to NC State in Friday night’s semifinals.

So when UVA received a spot in the 68-team NCAA Tournament field on Sunday night, McKneely felt some of that self-imposed pressure disappear.

McKneely missed the front end of a one-and-one situation with 5.3 seconds to play, his team leading 58-55. Had the team’s best free-throw shooter made one free throw, the Cavaliers would have ended State’s dream ride and UVA would have advanced to the ACC championship game for the second year in a row.

Instead, State rebounded and made a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime and winning the game in the extra period.

The loss put a huge question mark on whether or not Virginia would be selected for the NCAA Tournament. As teammate Reece Beekman said during a session with media in Dayton on Monday night, he heard there were a lot of brackets, as many as 63 published by “expert bracketologists,” and only one had Virginia in the field.

Instead, UVA will face Colorado State from the Mountain West Conference on Tuesday night in Dayton’s “First Four,” (see related story on how to watch the game, etc.), with the winner advancing to the NCAA’s first round on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.

“I thought we had chances to put [the NC State] game away, especially when I stepped to the line, but it’s good to have another chance to play because I would have hung my head on that forever if we wouldn’t have got in,” McKneely said Monday.

“So just having the chance to play, with the Selection Show, the uncertainty if we were going to be in or not, seeing our name, getting this chance, I think we’re just going to make the most of the opportunity. I know we’re all really thankful to be here for sure.”

Beekman, a senior who has never experienced the joy of winning an NCAA Tournament game, shared McKneely’s feelings on getting another chance.

“I definitely say relief,” Beekman said about the bid. “That loss has been with us, two days after, still was on my mind. Then going to the Selection Show, if that was like our last ACC game, that was just a tough way to go out.

“It was just relief getting into the tournament. Kind of that pressure, knowing we have another opportunity to have a better outcome.”

Ryan Dunn said the loss to NC State hurt a lot.

“We were kind of just figuring out, we were on the edge and we didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” Dunn said. “We kind of needed that win. And it was kind of a crazy loss for us to have. But being back here with the opportunity, we’re grateful.”

A video circulating displayed Virginia’s players’ emotional response to being included in the field, which seemed like a longshot in several circles. Beekman pointed out that most brackets had UVA either out or right on the cut line.

“Coming in [to the selection show], I didn’t know what to expect,” Beekman said. “I know those brackets are kind of the final, and stuff changes, but the emotions were high. All day I was kind of nervous, trying to not think about it too much, but that was really what was on my mind most of the day.

“Getting our name called was a great experience, probably one of the best experiences at UVA so far. It was just a great honor to be here and I hope we make the most of it.”

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said that neither McKneely or Beekman should have taken the blame for the NC State loss, even though both missed crucial free throws down the stretch that would have locked up the win.

“[McKneely] played terrific and Reece played terrific,” Bennett said. “We wouldn’t have even been in that game, in that spot, if those guys hadn’t produced the way they did. Those are the guys we wanted at the line for sure. I think we made one out of five (free throws) the last 60 or 70 seconds, which could have salted it away, but they played well to get to that spot.

“I’m very grateful that they got this opportunity. That’s why I think it was so emotional in the Selection Show when we were there because it’s just, you could feel that.”