Bennett grateful to survive 20-game ACC slate at top of league

By Kenneth Cross Correspondent

Photo by Jon Golden

The difference between No. 13 Virginia and the once-prominent Louisville Cardinals took center stage once again in Charlottesville, as the Cavaliers topped the Cardinals, 75-60, on Saturday afternoon. 

This was in retrospect of Virginia slipping by the Cards, 61-58, in the River City two weeks ago. Louisville guard Mike James led all scorers with 24 points while El Ellis scored 14 points in his 37 minutes. 

Virginia was poised to pick up a win that would tie them with Miami, which slid by Pittsburgh, 78-76, on Saturday evening.

The Hurricanes will get the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament via a tiebreaker, as they defeated the Cavaliers, 66-64, back on Dec. 20.

The Cavaliers placated their defense against a Cardinals offense that shot 42.2 percent (305th in Division I) this season while scoring only 64.1 points per game (339th).

Louisville made just 43.5 percent from the floor and only 4 of 15 3-pointers (26.7 percent). The Cavaliers built an 18-8 lead through the first 10 minutes of the game and were never threatened. 

“Louisville wouldn’t go away,” Bennett commented. “They started getting downhill in the paint. They fought, but it was special with what was at stake.”

It was the sixth share of an ACC regular-season championship that Bennett’s squads have taken part in, and a share of the 11th regular-season title for the Cavaliers.

“We just kept talking about, ‘Don’t get distracted, and just keep trying to get good shots and defend,’” explained Bennett. “So happy for everyone, because everyone is a part of this.”

The ACC is like most all conferences as league play turns into an excursion with 20 games. To finish at 15-5 as Virginia and Miami did this season was like a war of attrition for all 15 teams.

“The league is better than a lot of people say it is and to be able to be one of those teams that after 20 games can get a championship … I’m very thankful, and that’s a result, certainly, of these young men,” said Bennett. 

Virginia led all afternoon, as Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin were masters for the Cavaliers — who shot 58 percent from the floor — with 16 points each.

Gardner scored 10 of his 16 in the second half, as he varied his shot selection and gave Virginia a 58-43 lead with 6:54 left in the game. 

“He puts in his work,” said Bennett. “He’s got such a huge heart and he tries hard. I love that he’s such a tryer and he’s gifted, and he’s a great teammate.”

Franklin had a pair of 3s in that 18-8 start for the Cavaliers. He helped Virginia close out the win by scoring 7 points in that last 4:47.

Kihei Clark had 6 points and 6 assists in 30 minutes, while Reece Beekman recorded 11 of the Cavaliers’ 25 assists.

“They all just tried to work really hard,” Bennett said. “Going to Italy (off-season trip) and asking how can we improve individually and in our games, collectively? They’ve been very coachable.”

Ryan Dunn and Isaac McNeely moved Virginia forward as well, as Dunn scored 9 and McNeely picked up 7 points in roles that were around 20 minutes each on Saturday. Ben Vander Plas found 7 points in the paint as Virginia outscored Louisville, 38-26, inside.

“All three of those have given us a little more depth and experience,” explained Bennett. “I didn’t know what to expect with Isaac and Ryan being first-years, but they have stepped into some good opportunities and battled and so now, I think it’s rewarding for those guys.”