McKneely showing freshman growth for Virginia

By Kenneth Cross Correspondent

Photo by Jon Golden

Playing for Tony Bennett means that players must give 110 percent on every offensive or defensive possession and with that, you can win ACC titles as well as NCAA tournament games, and even cut the nets after a national championship.

Bennett has galvanized his program through this type of action with his additions to the program each season. True freshman Isaac McKneely came into the program with the typical characteristics of a Cavalier.

Although Virginia’s 69-61 loss to Houston was its first defeat of the season, the high level of play had the Cavaliers in a position to win this one as well.

McKneely played 25 minutes and scored nine points on Saturday, as he went head-to-head with Houston’s Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead, and Tramon Mark. 

McKneely seemed to have more confidence and play with more aggression as the game continued to move forward. He was 3 of 9 from the floor with two of those being 3-point field goals.

“For a young guy to be in a game like that, I thought he slid his feet well (defensive characteristic),” said Bennett. “There was one rebound where I don’t know if he thought someone had it, but I wish he would pursue it.”

Bennett coaches his players with a fervor that is contagious and allows players to build their confidence during a game. This has allowed McKneely to pick up his minutes, as he played 25 on Saturday after 26 in Virginia’s last game, which was a win over James Madison on Dec. 6. 

“Coach Bennett left me out there a lot today and he trusts me to be out there in crucial times,” explained McKneely. “I have just been working on building my confidence up as a freshman playing in a big game.”

Virginia was able to take a quick 9-0 lead on the Cougars, and then McKneely and Reece Beekman hit back-to-back threes after Houston had closed the margin to 9-7.

McKneely’s attention to his on-court tasks and his ability to produce for his team were seen on Saturday. 

The Cavaliers cut the deficit to 54-48 when Kihei Clark picked Shead’s pocket and scored on a breakaway layup.

After a TV timeout, McKneely was able to find a 3-point shot around the top of the key. He launched and missed, as the Cougars staved off what could have been an important basket for Virginia.

“I really wish that one would have fallen,” noted McKneely. “I think we were on a little run right there and could have cut it to three.”

McKneely has proven as a high riser, as he was the Gatorade Player of the Year in West Virginia in both 2021 and 2022. He led Poca High School to the AA state championship last season, where he averaged 22 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.

McKneely’s accolades come from his ability to be able to use both his confidence and depth of knowledge on the court. He noted that the Cavaliers’ biggest problems were via rebounding and defensive breakdowns.

“I thought the defense was solid for the most part, but whenever we had one simple break down they were making us pay with a three or a tough shot,” said McKneely. 

Houston shot 49 percent from the field in making 25-of-51 field goals and the Cougars outrebounded Virginia, 30-26.

“I think they just started making tough shots and we had some defensive breakdowns, here and there, and that was when the switch flipped and they stretched the lead out,” noted McKneely. “We could never fight all the way back and they would go on a 5-0 or 7-0 run and they would make a tough shot.”