Beekman cherishes ACC Defensive Player of the Year award: ‘I worked hard for that’

By Scott Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

When Virginia junior guard Reece Beekman was named the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year on Monday, nobody within the Cavaliers’ program was surprised.

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Milwaukee native (by way of Louisiana) has long been regarded as one of the conference’s top defenders, and after getting edged out by Duke’s Mark Williams for last year’s award, Beekman finally received the coveted achievement.

“That means a lot to me,” Beekman said during a media session prior to Tuesday’s practice. “I worked hard for that. Coming back, I felt like last year I had a good case for it, but then just coming back this year and winning it, that meant a lot to me, and the team. I felt like most of the time it’s me, but UVA is a team defense, so I rely on the other guys a lot to help me.”

Beekman, who now has collected 148 career steals in his three seasons as a Cavalier, welcomes the challenge of going up against the opponent’s top performers game in and game out, and has produced ovation-worthy performances on multiple occasions.

Beekman ranks third in the conference in steals with 1.61 per game, with a season-high five takeaways in the win against North Carolina in January. He also blocked 15 shots on the season.

Beekman joined an impressive group of former UVA defensive stalwarts De’Andre Hunter, Malcolm Brogdon, Darion Atkins and Isaiah Wilkins, all of whom were named ACC DPOY. Good luck scoring on those guys.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett shared his thoughts Tuesday of having all five of them together at once.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Alright, if those five guys were on the court, how good could they be collectively defensively?’” said the coach, “and it was fun to think about that.”

It certainly wouldn’t be fun for the opposing team in that hypothetical scenario. While that would be a dream for any coach, the reality is that Bennett has the luxury of having not one, but two talented, experienced, high-IQ, high-motor, lockdown defenders in the starting lineup, who just so happen to both be point guards.

Having a pair of floor generals that are masters of their craft on both ends of the floor — graduate Kihei Clark joined Beekman on both the ACC All-Defensive Team and the All-ACC Third Team — is something that the Cavaliers will lean heavily on in the ACC and NCAA Tournament, just as they have all season long.

“It’s a tremendous award for Reece to receive,” Bennett said of the DPOY accomplishment. “Our defense is an ‘us’ defense or a ‘we’ or a ‘team’ defense, so that’s such a part of it. But we’ve talked about it from day one, I think you saw some of those natural instincts that Reece has — the anticipation, the quick hands — and then the ability to desire to play that way and have the heart, because that’s a hard thing to make yourself.

“It’s not natural, and so I’m glad he’s been rewarded. And obviously Kihei was on that first team as well, so that’s good.”

Even though he wasn’t a part of the team last season, Virginia first-year backcourt mate Issac McKneely kept a close eye on Beekman and the Cavaliers.

“I felt like he should have got it last year too,” McKneely said of Beekman winning the award. “I’m really proud of him. Going up against him in the summer and the offseason was tough, for sure, because he’s just the best defender in the ACC, but it just made me better, so I can’t thank him enough for that.”

Ohio grad transfer Ben Vander Plas is equally happy for Beekman.

“I’m super proud of him,” said Vander Plas. “Coming in this summer, I remember that was something that he talked about in the locker room as a goal of his, and to see him win that, yes, super deserving. I think we all can see his ability on the floor to guard multiple positions, be in passing lanes, stay in front of people one-on-one, just everything you need from a defender, and for him to win, that is really cool.”

What’s even more impressive is considering that Beekman was not 100-percent healthy for a good chunk of the season, after suffering a hamstring strain against James Madison and playing only three minutes.

He returned for a top-five matchup against Houston 11 days later, and courageously played through the pain, not only in the 8-point loss to the Cougars, but over the course of the next several games.

Now closer to full strength heading into the postseason, Beekman is ready to lead the Wahoos into Greensboro after finishing strong and clinching a share of the ACC regular-season title. He points to the second-half effort in Chapel Hill as the moment things turned around for the Hoos.

“I feel like that second half was kind of like a turning point for us,” Beekman said, as Virginia has a chance to face the Tar Heels again in Thursday’s quarterfinal round. “We came out just with a lot of energy, a lot of passion. I feel like that carried us the last two games of the regular season, so we just want to build on that going into the postseason, so I feel like that’s going to give us the best chance to win as many games as we can.”