Virginia’s proficiency at the free-throw line helps Cavaliers stave off stubborn FSU in ACC opener

By Kenneth Cross Correspondent

Photo: UVA Athletics

Nearly every season, Virginia and Florida State have been the top two defensive teams in ACC basketball, as both clubs have played on the defensive end with attitudes that allowed them to stay in games and win them in the end.

Saturday, undefeated No.3 Virginia slid by what has been one of the most injury-plagued teams in the game in the Seminoles, 62-57.

Defensively, the two teams fought each other in grand fashion, as each club shot only around 25 percent in the first half and the Seminoles captured a surprising 22-21 lead after 20 minutes. 

As Virginia started the second half, the Cavaliers made 9 of 13 shots and took a 43-31 lead with a layup by Jayden Gardner with 11:16 to play. 

The Cavaliers knew they were going to have to find ways to make shots, and that is where the free-throw line came into play.

Virginia made free throws and put the game away as they made 13 of 16 from the line over the last 6:48 to preserve the win, while making only 2 of 8 field-goal attempts. 

“You know how good Leonard coaches physicality,” said Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett. “All the games with Florida State, and usually in conference play, it steps up a notch in terms of physicality and intensity. They played well, and coming in here was kind of a fresh start.”

Gardner scored Virginia’s last field goal with 3:02 remaining as it gave the Cavaliers a 53-43 lead. 

From there, Virginia made 9 of 10 free throws, which answered nine combined points by the Seminoles’ Darin Green Jr. and Matthew Cleveland, who scored on a layup with 16 seconds remaining to cut the Virginia margin to 58-54.

“These games come down to making plays, knocking down free throws at the right time, hitting a big shot, getting a big stop, a blocked shot or offensive rebound,” noted Bennett. “So those are the kinds of things you need, but definitely to have a composure and stepping up and knocking [free throws] down when you step up there in that setting. We try to put those guys in as many spots like that as possible in practice.”

Virginia came into Saturday’s game making 19.2 free throws (seventh in the nation) per game while attempting 26.9 (eighth in the nation). Saturday afternoon, Virginia made 21 of 26, as the 13 of 16 came in the clutch to help the Cavaliers hold off determined Florida State.

After Florida State swingman Cam’Ron Fletcher converted a layup and a free throw to cut the score to 60-57 with seven seconds remaining, Reece Beekman nailed the final pair of foul shots to allow Virginia to pull up at 1-0 in ACC play.

“He’s now in his third year of playing a lot,” said Bennett of Beekman. “In the first half at Michigan, he kept us in it and made some plays.”

Bennett and FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton have tremendous respect for each other’s defenses as well as respect for their personality traits.

“They switch everything one through five and force you to make plays or knock down shots,” explained Bennett. “If you can’t make plays or knock down shots, it’s going to be really tough to beat them.”

Florida State only made seven field goals in the first half and Virginia just found the chords six times. FSU, now with a 1-9 record, has struggled much in part due to having limited players available early in the season, with Jaylan Gainey sidelined with a torn MCL and a 16-game suspension to Baba Miller. In some games, Florida State has had only seven scholarship players available, although the Seminoles played nine against UVA.

However, this is still one of Hamilton’s youngest teams at Florida State.

“We’ve never had to put this many freshmen and first-year players in the position they are in,” said Hamilton. “The good thing is that they get some experience that they normally wouldn’t get. We have had second-year guys being the leaders and they are still learning themselves.”