Let the big dog eat … Gardner puts up season-high 26 as Wahoos roll to 5-0

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Lord only knows how challenging it was for Jayden Gardner to have been Virginia’s workhorse last season when he was both the team’s leading scorer and rebounder.

With little support from the Cavaliers’ perimeter shooters, it was on Gardner’s ample shoulders to battle for buckets and boards against much larger beasts. Still, he averaged 15.3 points per game, making half his shots and pulling down more than 6 rebounds a game.

Friday night’s 72-45 win over UVA’s latest Rent-A-Victim, Maryland-Eastern Shore, brought back memories in that Gardner didn’t get a lot of help from downtown. This time, he didn’t need it.

While Virginia, which has been one of the most lethal 3-point shooting teams in the country in the early season, was struggling from beyond the arc (only 5 of 15), the 6-foot-6 Gardner and taller teammate Kadin Shedrick (6-11) were creating havoc in the paint. Combined, they scored 39 points, and UMES, which started a frontline of 6-5, 6-4, 6-3, had no answer.

Gardner anticipated a golden night and was busy in pregame warmups, getting in as many mid-range jumpers — his specialty — as he could.

By halftime he had easily surpassed his season high by posting 18 points, and finished with 26 (on a 12-of-15 shooting night) and didn’t even play the last five minutes of the game.

Like the good guy he is, Gardner credited his teammates’ unselfishness, noting how the guards told him they would be feeding him throughout the night.

Let the big dog eat.

“We said if we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose on their forwards making foul-line jump shots, and Gardner made a whole lot of those bad boys,” said UMES coach Jason Crafton, who found Gardner a load to deal with.

“He’s got a low center of gravity, he can get low, he can get under people. He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power. That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there. He’s very intentional about getting it to his right hand over his left shoulder, no matter what you’re trying to do.”

Crafton couldn’t stop raving about Gardner, who plays much bigger than his size.

“He’s got the weight advantage. He’s got the size advantage, the maturity advantage, the skill advantage and the toughness advantage. And he took advantage of it,” Crafton laughed. “That’s a lot of advantages.”

Indeed. Sorry, not sorry, Gardner might reply.

He didn’t waste any time establishing his presence, scoring six of UVA’s first 10 points as the Cavaliers bolted to a 20-4 lead. He scored three straight buckets inside of a two-minute span later in the half on two inside shots and a mid-ranger, then made back-to-back-to-back scores in the final three minutes of the half.

Tony Bennett isn’t going to purposely run the score up on anyone, so with five minutes to go, he ended Gardner’s evening.

Bennett noted that Gardner has been a bit rushed at times in the early season, and wanted his power forward to slow things down a bit. Gardner obliged. Certainly, Maryland-Eastern Shore’s players were smaller, but quick, and wanted to speed up or rush Gardner’s movements, but he controlled his pace.

“That was a good step for Jayden,” Bennett said after the fifth-ranked Cavaliers improved to 5-0 on the season. “I thought he really established easy baskets for us. The guys found him and so that was good to see because he’s been a little bit rushed at times.

“We’re going to need that offensive punch he gives us because when he’s aggressive, but not rushing, that’s when he’s at his best and I think that really helps us.”

Gardner was smart in not allowing his smaller, quicker opponent to rush him, patiently waiting for his teammates to spoon-feed him the ball in great positions where he could score.

“Yeah, just slowing down, checking to see what’s coming in, and if nobody’s coming, just go make my move and go right over the opponent,” said Gardner, who posted his 41st career 20-point game (eighth at UVA) and his 105th double-figures game.

When the Cavaliers are clicking on all cylinders, it should help Gardner even more, as Shedrick pointed out.

“Jayden had a lot of pressure taken off his shoulders from last year … all this scoring coming together,” Shedrick said. “It can be anybody any night, and obviously it was Jayden tonight. I’m sure it was good for him and good for us.”

And not good for Maryland-Eastern Shore.