Unbeaten Virginia knocks out Illinois to claim Continental Tire Main Event championship, 70-61

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

In a city that has glittered with such champions as Ali, Tyson, Holyfield, Foreman and Sugar Ray over the decades, Virginia basketball prevailed as the premiere heavyweight champion of Las Vegas on Sunday, outlasting Illinois, 70-61.

Over a span of three days, the No. 16 Cavaliers remained undefeated by knocking off a pair of Top-20 opponents — No. 5 Baylor (86-79), then No. 19 Illinois, which had upset No. 8 UCLA — and claimed the Continental Tire Main Event championship.

Destined to vault into this week’s AP poll Top 10, Virginia was trading punches with Illinois until late in the fight and had fallen slightly behind at 58-57 with 3:27 to play. It was precisely at that moment UVA guard Reece Beekman took over.

Beekman, who won MVP of the tournament (see related story), scored 10 of his 27 points over that final stretch as he sparked a 14-3 run that knocked out the Fighting Illini.

The turning point of the game came when Beekman scored on a fast-break layup and was fouled as he converted a three-point play the old-fashioned way to put the Cavaliers in the lead for good, 60-58.

Illinois, resembling a blinded fighter swinging at air the final three-and-a-half minutes, missed five of its last six field-goal attempts during that critical stretch, turned the ball over twice (Armaan Franklin drawing a charge) and watched their best player, Terrence Shannon Jr., foul out.

Beekman quickly scored again, this time on an inside bucket at the 2:18 mark for a 62-58 advantage, then finished with five free throws over the final 30 seconds. Not only was Beekman clutch with his team-high 17 points, but he played suffocating defense against Shannon, a projected lottery pick who was averaging 24 points on the season. He finished with 9 points and 6 turnovers.

“I think our experience showed and our guard play showed with some tough stops,” said UVA coach Tony Bennett. “[Illinois] is young at the guards and maybe that showed a little bit.

“To have Reece make some of those plays, get a couple of those loose balls and turnovers we converted and to make most of our free throws, it was well-executed.”

Virginia, which was ranked fifth in the nation in free-throw shooting coming into Sunday’s game at T-Mobile Arena, converted 25 of 32 attempts at the line, outrebounded the Illini, 37-34, and limited Illinois to a mere three fast-break points, while uncharacteristically putting up 12 itself.

Illinois led 31-29 at the break as the two heavyweights leap-frogged leads throughout the second half until Virginia’s big runaway. The Cavaliers pulled to a 53-47 advantage with 7:10 to play on back-to-back Franklin buckets before the Illini regained the lead at 58-57 prior to the UVA finishing blows.

Franklin, who had put up a career-high 26 points against Baylor, finished with 9 against the Illini. Jayden Gardner broke out of his scoring slump with 12 points, while Kihei Clark added 12. Kadin Shedrick posted 7 points and 6 rebounds, while Ben Vander Plas finished with 8 points (8 of 9 from the free-throw line) and 10 rebounds. Vander Plas pulled down several key rebounds down the stretch.

“There was a stretch where they were outrebounding us and, ironically, I was like, well I don’t know if I should go with Jayden and Ben size-wise, but I thought offensively it might be good,” said Bennett. “A little quicker to cover the threes and rebounding-wise, we were having a little trouble no matter who was on the floor. That kid for them was a load down low, but we did a good job on him. And we did a really good job on Shannon.”

Bennett said he challenged Beekman before the game.

“It was all of us against [Shannon],” Bennett said, “but Reece was engaged and we wanted that matchup. Reece has such quick hands and I thought he really took a big step in his game offensively, and obviously defensively.”

Beekman said that Virginia had been through a lot of battles in the past year, but was prepared for the challenge this time around.

“I could tell that everybody on the team, that last 3:27, we were down and we all just flipped the script,” Beekman said. “We needed that for us to win today and that’s the mindset coach gave us. Who’s going to break down, so we stayed true to ourselves, to the system, and we came out on top.”

His 3-point play was a huge moment for Virginia and led to the spurt that closed out the Illini.

“It was a big momentum swing,” Beekman said. “We needed a bucket and I ended up getting that, so I was just continuing to stay true to my teammates.

“We outlasted both teams (Baylor and Illinois), so in this tournament we showed we can play with the best.”

It was the first time since the end of the 2019-20 national championship season that Virginia has knocked off back-to-back ranked teams. It was also the fourth-straight game this season the Cavaliers have scored 70 or more points, the first time UVA has opened a season accomplishing that feat since 2018-19.

The Cavaliers were carrying a heavy burden with them to Las Vegas, a week since three UVA football players were senselessly gunned down after returning to campus from a class field trip.

Bennett said the team would have loved to have attended Saturday’s memorial service for the players, but kept their memories close to their hearts through the weekend.

“We wanted to lay it on the line for that moment,” Bennett said. “Your heart never goes far from the emotion of what happened. When we played and practiced, it was ‘let’s be about this.’ Off the court, we just tried to kind of love each other and be there for one another, thinking always of holding those people in our hearts and our prayers.”

Team Notes

Courtesy UVA Media Relations

  • UVA is 4-0 for the first time since starting 7-0 in 2019-20
  • The Cavaliers claimed their eighth November tournament championship in the last nine seasons
  • UVA has recorded back-to-back ranked wins for the first time since the end of the 2019-20 season (52-50 vs. No. 7 Duke and 57-54 vs. No. 10 Louisville)
  • UVA has posted back-to-back ranked wins away from home for the first time since defeating No. 13 Purdue (80-75 OT, No. 14 Auburn (63-62) and No. 9 Texas Tech (85-77 OT) in the 2019 NCAA Tournament
  • UVA is 148-11 when scoring 70 or more points under Bennett
  • UVA has scored 70 or more points in its first four games for the first time since starting the 2018-19 season with five games of 70 or more points
  • UVA is 50-41 against ranked foes in the Tony Bennett era
  • UVA is 159-47 in non-conference action under Tony Bennett
  • Virginia started the second half on a 6-0 run
  • Illinois led 31-29 at the half
  • UVA outrebounded Illinois 37-34 and scored 19 points off 13 Illinois turnovers

Bennett Wins Watch

  • Tony Bennett (320-117, 14 seasons) needs seven wins to pass Terry Holland (326-173, 16 seasons) as the all-time winningest coach at UVA
  • Bennett (389-150) needs 11 wins to reach 400 career wins

Series Notes

  • Virginia is 1-0 all-time vs. Illinois

Player Notes

  • Double Figure Scorers: Reece Beekman (17), Kihei Clark (12), Jayden Gardner (12)
  • Tournament MVP Beekman scored five points straight points to give UVA a 62-58 lead
  • Beekman reached double figures for the 18th time
  • Clark scored Virginia’s first seven points
  • Clark reached double figures for the 52nd time
  • Clark (4,369 minutes) moved pass Duke’s Shane Battier (4,337 minutes from 1998-01) into 25th on the ACC’s Career Minutes Played list
  • Clark moved into ninth on UVA’s career games list with 132
  • Clark moved into 10th on UVA’s career starts list with 112
  • Gardner reached double figures for the 104th time
  • Ben Vander Plas had a season-high 10 rebounds