Beekman, Buchanan ride to the rescue in close call with Gators

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

With only five seconds left on the clock and Virginia clinging to a two-point lead against Florida in Friday night’s Hall of Fame Classic, the Cavaliers needed a hero.

Enter Reece Beekman, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

As Gators junior point guard Walter Clayton raced down the right sideline, right in front of the Florida bench, the Iona transfer hoped to get off the winning shot. Beekman had other plans.

Virginia’s lockdown guard bottled up Clayton and stole the ball, forcing Clayton to foul him in desperation with 0.7 seconds to go. All Beekman had to do was go to the free-throw line to ice the win and send the Cavaliers home. He made the first and the second didn’t really matter in a 73-70 Wahoo win (see game story for the blow-by-blow gamer, boxscore and notebook).

It was the second turnover by Clayton during the intense last 15 seconds and another example of how valuable Beekman’s defensive talents are to Virginia.

Having resisted temptations to go pro, Beekman returned for his final year and there is absolutely no doubt this is his basketball team. Beekman is by far the most aggressive we have seen him on offense and the same defensive menace UVA fans are accustomed to watching. 

“I kind of knew [Clayton] was going to come down kind of at a fast pace, so I tried to get him squared up and he ended up fumbling it,” said Beekman, who finished the game with 13 points (5 for 13 field goals, 2 for 4 from 3, 1 for 4 free throws), 5 assists, 1 turnover and 3 steals.

In the final two minutes, Beekman took over the game, scoring on an aggressive drive to the hoop, missed on his next shot, which was put back by Ryan Dunn, then Beekman drove to the lane again, this time dishing off to freshman post player Blake Buchanan, who was fouled on an attempted dunk and made both free throws.

Beekman’s 13 was surpassed only by Buchanan, who took a giant step in his development, starting the second half and finishing with a game-high 18 points, including 10 of 16 from the free-throw line. He also had 7 rebounds and a blocked shot.

When Buchanan struggled early at the line (he made only one of his first five foul shots), Florida figured it had discovered a weakness and continued to hack him. Big mistake.

Buchanan drew eight fouls and ended up making 9 of his last 11 free throws.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett liked what he saw in his 6-foot-11 big man from Idaho.

“He’s so active on the offensive glass,” Bennett said. “He’s gotta keep getting better with his defensive rebounding, but he’s quick-footed. He stepped up and made some big free throws. He’s got a motor that doesn’t quit and that’s so important for us.

“In this setting, going against those big guys, being young like that, that’s a real good sign for him and for us.”

Buchanan got baptism by fire in a very physical game, something that impressed his coach.

“It was a really cool experience for me just to be out there with those guys in this environment,” said Buchanan, who scored only 1 point in 17 minutes against Tarleton State in UVA’s opening win earlier in the week. “It was just kind of exciting to take it all in, every moment of it.”

Bennett noticed the feet and the fire in his freshman when the Cavaliers scrimmaged defending national champion UConn in the preseason. He also saw that Buchanan has the ability to stretch defenses with a decent jump shot to go along with his dunking capabilities.

The Virginia coach was pleased with the early nonconference test against a solid opponent. While he pointed out that the Cavaliers need to improve on the boards (Florida outrebounded UVA 47-30), moving to 2-0 with a young team was important.

Still, Beekman said that even if the Cavaliers had lost, they would have walked out of Charlotte feeling good about themselves.

UVA led 39-35 at the half and built the lead to 50-41 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Jake Groves during a 10-point scoring spree from the Oklahoma transfer. Florida fought back with a 12-0 run to take a 55-54 lead with eight minutes to go. The Cavaliers battled the rest of the way, with Buchanan solid at the free-throw line down the home stretch.

“I felt like that just goes to show how we work at practice,” Beekman said. “We compete with each other even on days when we’re having off-days. It was kind of just us fighting back.”

Part of that comeback included some fierce defensive play that resulted in 16 Gator turnovers. Virginia had 15 steals, the most by the Cavaliers since 2015, leaving Florida coach Todd Golden distraught.

“The turnovers are what we’re going to kick ourselves about,” Golden said. “Some unforced ones. A lot of them were live-ball turnovers. They had 15 steals, which is an insane number and something you don’t see very often.”

Even when you’re playing one of the top defensive programs in the nation.