It wasn’t Virginia’s defense that kept Wake Forest’s coach up all night, it was …

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Steve Forbes heard all the chatter about Virginia’s defense all season long, just like he’s heard it for years now. Yeah, Virginia’s defense is good, solid, and you better buckle up if you’re not accustomed to facing suffocating, in-your-face, pack-the-lane pressure.

It wasn’t Virginia’s defense Forbes was sweating. It was the Cavaliers offense that made the Wake Forest coach search for the Pepto in his medicine cabinet.

Virginia offense? Say what?

“I was really worried about their offense,” Forbes said after UVA outscored the ACC’s leading offense 76-67 on Saturday, snapping Wake’s homecourt winning streak at 15 games.

“I guess they showed it today when they banged 15 threes on us,” Forbes said. “I think they scored on eight straight possessions in the first half with a 22-point run in there, so we’re playing from behind the rest of the game. It’s hard to do that against an elite basketball team.”

Certainly a nearly flawless first half offensively, including no turnovers, helped Virginia do what only two teams had done since the beginning of the 2021-22 season: win at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, where Forbes’ Deacons had won 28 of their last 30 games. It was thought near-impossible to walk out of this little-known fortress unscathed, and had it not been for Virginia’s offensive balance and some gritty defense by its backcourt of Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman, both of which played the final seven minutes-plus carrying four fouls, the 10th-ranked Wahoos would have been just another ranked victim on Wake’s list.

As bold a move as it was by Tony Bennett to reinsert his two point guards with that much time remaining was a gamble, one that Bennett didn’t take credit for. Instead, he listened to the suggestion of one of his assistant coaches to play ‘em both. Still, Bennett had veto power and decided to go with the strategy.

Leading by only one point at that moment, Beekman didn’t shy away from contact and immediately drew a foul, and made both free throws. Even though Wake deliberately drove the ball at UVA’s guards, the two Cavaliers avoided the bait like a wise, old walleye at the bottom of the lake.

Instead, it was fifth-year Clark who made Wake pay for fouls, converting six of seven free throws to sew up Virginia’s 15th win in 18 games. Beekman added a 3-pointer down the stretch for good measure as Wake simply struggled to guard Bennett’s array of sharpshooters. Six different Cavaliers made at least one triple, and Armaan Franklin, who finished with 25 points, made five — count ‘em, five — 3-pointers.

“I thought some of it was more like we just wanted them to miss instead of making them miss, and they’re not going to do that … they’re too good for that,” Forbes said.

Virginia certainly has been a potent offensive team for most of the season, especially when the 3-point shot is falling.

In Sunday’s Kenpom rankings, the Cavaliers are No. 19 nationally in offensive efficiency. We are talking Virginia, right?

UVA is averaging 70.3 points per game, has hit the 70-or-more mark eight times this season, and passed the 80-point plateau twice, including against Baylor.

Since shifting to a smaller lineup for the second half in the win over North Carolina, three-and-a-half games ago, Virginia’s offense has hit a new level, and that’s what caught Forbes’ eye.

“Yeah, I think [the small ball] is a better offensive team,” Forbes said. “That’s just my opinion. It’s a harder team to guard. I like that lineup because you have to guard all five spots and sometimes you play teams you don’t have to guard that guy so much. That puts a lot of pressure on you.”

Forbes’ analysis was spot-on. Franklin, who has 47 career double-figure performances, has been deadly. Transfer Ben Vander Plas, who creates all kinds of matchup problems with his versatility to play big or small, has been huge during UVA’s current winning streak. Then there’s Clark, Beekman, and either Jayden Gardner, who is automatic from 15 feet, or freshman Isaac McKneely, who is almost automatic from Bonusphere.

Even since the second half of the win over the Tar Heels, that lineup has been golden, particularly when Bennett runs the triangle offense that showcases Franklin and Vander Plas. The two have made 24 of 44 field-goal attempts (54.5 percent) and 14 of 33 triples (42.4) during that span.

If they don’t have a shot, kick it out to McKneely. Since Bennett told him to “take off the parking brake,” the West Virginia freshman has made 17 of his last 31 shots from beyond the arc … that’s 55 percent, which is scary good.

Bennett confessed that yes, it was a ton of 3’s (Virginia attempted a season-high 34), but if that’s what it takes, let it fly.