Down 4 points with 11.4 seconds left in regulation, the University of Virginia Men’s basketball team needed a miracle to avoid losing their first ACC matchup against Pittsburgh on Friday night, and with a little luck and a big-time shot, they got just that. Inbounding the ball underneath the basket with 11.4 on the clock, Senior guard Kehei Clark bounced a pass to a slashing Jayden Gardner, who took it strongly right up to the rim, finishing the layup and drawing a shooting foul. Gardner knocked down the free-throw, making it 56-55 Pitt with 9.7 seconds left, and Pitt basketball underneath their own rim. In disastrous fashion for Pitt fans, sophomore guard William Jeffress ran along his own baseline looking for an open pass to no avail, as he was called for a 5-second violation, sending John Paul Jones arena into a frenzy and gifting the ball back to Virginia. Following a Virginia timeout, Clark inbounded the ball to Gardner, who quickly dished it out to Tane Murray for a catch-and-shoot three from the left-wing. Murray’s shot misfired long, shooting off the back of the rim and up in the air. After a tip, Gardner secured the rebound along the right side of the baseline, and with about 4.1 seconds left on the clock, he wasted no time, hoisting up a fadeaway mid-range with two Pitt defenders contesting. In Kawhi Leonard-esque fashion, Gardner’s shot rolled around and nearly sat still on the front of the rim before falling through, giving the Hoos a 57-56 lead with .9 seconds to go and electrifying John Paul Jones Arena. Pitt needed a miracle of their own, having to go the length of the floor with less than a second left. Jeffress’ desperation pass found a home in Kihei Clark’s hands, and the Cavs escaped with a thrilling win to improve to 6-3 on the season, and 1-0 in conference play.
For Virginia fans watching at home and in person, the Hoos felt in control for the majority of this game. They held a 10-point lead with four minutes to go in the first half and were up 7 with seven minutes to go in the second half. In comparison, Pitt’s largest lead was just 4 points. Despite their shooting wows (the Cavs shot 4/21 from 3 on the day), Virginia’s strong ball movement (18 assists) helped them dictate the pace of the game. However, Pitt hung around down the stretch thanks to a strong performance from three (8/16). The disparity between Virginia and Pitt’s three-point performance kept the game surprisingly close, and if not for the late-game heroics, would have been the Hoos’ downfall. Ultimately, strong performances from Gardner (15/5/4) and Kihei Clark (9/5/6), coupled with Pitt’s mistakes down the stretch sealed the deal for Virginia Saturday night.
The Cavaliers deserve a lot of credit for pulling out this win, despite Pitt not being widely considered a contender in the ACC. It takes true mental toughness to win a game in the fashion they did. Naturally, Gardner’s last-second shot will be remembered, but how about the inbound defense to force the 5-second violation, or sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick relentlessly pursuing the ball of the Murray miss, and tipping it to Gardner for his winning shot? Though this year’s team isn’t the most talented to take the court for the Hoos in recent memory, they showed heart, and a willingness to commit to the intangibles last night, which led to a thrilling victory. To contend going forwards, the offensive performance will simply have to be better, but for now, the team should feel proud with how they competed until the final buzzer and survived an upset at home. Virginia travels to take on James Madison University next Tuesday, December 7 at 6:30 PM.