For national college basketball observers, Virginia‘s 63-58 win at Clemson on Saturday afternoon might not look like much. After all, the host Tigers have fallen out of the ACC title race of late and are far removed from their home win over the Duke Blue Devils earlier in the conference season. Given the Cavaliers entered the game on an eight-game winning streak, some who don’t pay real close attention to ACC basketball probably expected Virginia to dominate much like they have in several conference games this season.
But in reality, the five-point win really points toward how good this Virginia (21-5, 12-1 ACC) team is. Stuck in a tough game on the road, at a venue where UVA had yet to win with fifth-year head coach Tony Bennett at the helm, the Cavaliers did what teams have to do when they are trying to go from being very good to great. Virginia dominated late, made all the required plays on both ends of the floor and polished off a win over a Clemson team that appeared headed for its second huge home win of the season at times.
On the offensive end, the Virginia team that is much maligned for its team free throw shooting (65.4 percent) executed to perfection, making sure that top shooter Malcolm Brogdon (91 percent) had the ball in his hands every time Clemson tried to foul to extend the game. Brogdon was fouled three times by the Tigers in the final 81 seconds, and went 6-for-6 from the line. He finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, while senior Joe Harris had 16 points to lead the Cavaliers, who had four players score in double figures.
Defensively, Virginia did give up the 24 to McDaniels, but no other Clemson (15-9, 6-6 ACC) player finished in double figures. In those final 81 seconds, the Cavaliers’ defense held Clemson to 1-for-6 from the field, and the only make was a 25-foot 3-pointer by McDaniels with 23 seconds left that cut the Virginia lead to 59-58. However, Brogdon made his free throws, and the Tigers never hit another shot.
Virginia held Clemson to just 42.9 percent from the field and won the rebounding battle in decisive fashion, 33-21. More often than not, Clemson managed just one shot against the Virginia defense as the Tigers were only able to retrieve five offensive rebounds. Virginia had 13.
Virginia was far from perfect Saturday. At times, especially early in the second half, the offense struggled to find open shots against the Clemson defense, and when the Cavaliers did, they missed several opportunities from inside of six feet. Defensively, Virginia was late getting out to 3-point shooters on multiple occasions, and on McDaniels’ long, late three, Akil Mitchell failed to get his hands up soon enough to dissuade McDaniels from taking the shot.
For the most part when it really mattered, however, Virginia showed why it was the better team and why the Cavaliers are still very much in the ACC title race, just one game behind undefeated Syracuse in the loss column.
Virginia must keep its eyes focused on the present, however, as a Tuesday night game at rival Virginia Tech awaits. The Hokies are 8-15 and have lost 10 straight conference games, but a win over UVA would make their season, so Virginia is likely to get Tech’s best effort. Clemson gave that Saturday, and it wasn’t enough.